dscn0152We are happy to present “Bookchin and Marx,” a paper delivered at this year’s ISE annual gathering by Reid Kotlas, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Platypus is an international project “for the self-criticism, self-education, and, ultimately, the practical reconstitution of a Marxian Left” which hosts reading groups and publishes the journal The Platypus Review.  In recent years Platypus has initiated a critical engagement with the ideas of Social Ecology, and have invited ISE faculty members to participate in their annual gathering on multiple occasions. Kotlas’ presentation kicked off a lively discussion of Bookchin’s indebtedness to, and partial rejection of Marx, as well as the lessons and limitations of early 20th century left party politics.


Bookchin and Marx

     By Reid Kotlas

Platypus as a project seeks to relate to the contemporary Left by focusing on the Left in history. We do this because we think one’s understanding of history is in fact one’s theory of the present, of how the present came to be and what might become of it.[1] We try to understand the left politics of the present in light of what the Left has been, so as to provoke critical reflection. Is the Left today living up to the legacy it inherits? Are we falling short of the aspirations of the past? Must we?

bookchin-marxMurray Bookchin offers a compelling case of the difficulty of reckoning with history. Bookchin’s political career was fundamentally shaped by his education in and ultimate disenchantment with Marxism. He joined the “official” Communist movement in 1930 at the age of nine. By the end of the thirties, disconcerted by Stalinist leadership, he found refuge in the Trotskyist movement. As the Second World War began, there was an expectation that it would set the stage for a new wave of world revolution, requiring well-prepared revolutionary leadership just as the Bolsheviks had provided at the end of the First World War.

Yet Trotsky’s judgment was not above reproach among his sympathizers and supporters. Questions lingered about his role in the degeneration of the Bolshevik leadership that had culminated in Stalinism. These concerns were only compounded by his insistence that his followers defend the Soviet Union.

Bookchin was frustrated in his efforts to win workers over to the cause of the Fourth International, finding them concerned only with their wages and working conditions. Trotskyist opposition to the war proved a further obstacle due to popular support for the Allied cause. His frustration with Trotskyism as a practical politics would culminate in skepticism of the ostensibly Marxist conception of the working class as essentially revolutionary. His wavering was only encouraged by the perceived dogmatism of Trotskyist leadership after Trotsky’s assassination.

By the end of the war, the hope for a new revolutionary wave repeating the Bolshevik experience had been crushed. Even the most faithful Marxists were deeply troubled by the apparent refutation of Marx’s own expectations. Marxist leadership of the socialist movement, now a century removed from the Communist Manifesto, seemingly had nothing positive to show for itself.

Yet Bookchin’s crisis of faith in Marxism did not result in depoliticization. He sought another way forward for socialism that would exceed the limitations of Marxism. As Bookchin knew, Trotsky had himself admitted that if the war did not culminate in revolution, “then we should doubtless have to pose the question of revising our conception of the present epoch and its driving forces.”[2]

After dedicating two decades to reckoning with the failure of Marxism, Bookchin was confronted with an opportunity to impart the wealth of his own experience to the New Left generation. Alarmed by the growing influence of neo-Marxist currents among young radicals, Bookchin warned in his famous 1969 pamphlet Listen, Marxist! that “All the old crap of the thirties is coming back again…and in a more vulgarized form than ever.”[3]

While the New Left had previously defined itself at variance with the “old” (Stalinist and Trotskyist) leftism of their parents, 1968 represented a crisis for the New Left which provoked a return not only to Marx but to Lenin as well, albeit through the detour of Maoism. For Bookchin, this represented a step backward, recoiling from the ambiguities of an unprecedented situation into the comforting certainty of tradition.

Bookchin was not interested in simply dismissing Marxism, but in understanding why it found renewed appeal. He had not come to reject Marxism out of hand, but to appreciate its plausibility while recognizing its ultimate inadequacy. As he put it, “the problem is not to “abandon” Marxism or to “annul” it, but to transcend it dialectically, just as Marx transcended Hegelian philosophy, Ricardian economics, and Blanquist tactics and modes of organization.” For Bookchin, this meant recognizing that capitalism had developed beyond the stage Marx himself had confronted, specifically in achieving “a more advanced stage of technological development than Marx could have clearly anticipated,” and that this required “a new critique”, “new modes of struggle, of organization, of propaganda and of lifestyle.”

Bookchin thought Marx understood why society was divided into mutually hostile classes: that this was rooted in “scarcity”, and that scarcity must be overcome to abolish the ill effects and realize the thwarted potentials of the “era” defined by it. Yet Marxism remained beholden to the very condition of scarcity it supposedly criticized, seeking to use methods adapted to this condition to overcome it.

Bookchin claimed that Marx understood the overcoming of scarcity and thus the achievement of the “classless society” on the model of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Bookchin’s experience led him to question whether “we [can] explain the transition from a class society to a classless society by means of the same dialectic that accounts for the transition of one class society to another”. Thus for Marx, the proletariat was to develop within capitalism until it was able to take political power, just as the bourgeoisie had developed under feudalism.

Bookchin came to believe that this was “ridiculous”, and that “what we can learn from the revolutions of the past is what all revolutions have in common and their profound limitations compared with the enormous possibilities that are now open to us.”

These possibilities resulted from the fact that bourgeois society was now “in the process of disintegrating all the social classes that once gave it stability”, making the “class line” ring hollow. It was not class struggle but the “decomposition” of classes that would yield the classless society. This produced a single great “non-class”, drawn from “all strata of society”, and especially the young, that would not need to be won over to the cause of revolution because it was already revolutionary in its very lack of discipline and conformity. Bookchin thus interpreted the breakdown of class dynamics in terms of the youth revolt against established authority and tradition.

Bookchin asked, “When the hell are we finally going to create a movement that looks to the future instead of to the past? When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying?” He credits Marx with trying to do just this. Yet Marx also knew that the view of the future is distorted and obscured by the weight of the past, which constitutes the condition under which anything new might be brought about. The new must be understood not merely as abstractly opposed to the old but as defined in overcoming the burdens of the past, as achieving something the past pointed toward but never realized.

Bookchin cites the famous opening chapter of the 18th Brumaire, in which Marx contrasted the bourgeois revolutions, which always resorted to mimicking the past, with the proletarian revolution whose poetry would be drawn from the future. Yet Marx’s concern was to warn that in seeking to bring about the new we might, despite ourselves, come to rely on the old and familiar, and in doing so, fall below the level of what came before instead of rising above it.

What, then, for Marx, distinguished the revolution of the 19th century from that of the 18th?

The industrial revolution was a turning-point in history not simply because of the “technology” it introduced, but because of the transformation of social relations embodied in that technology. The transformation did not achieve some stable endpoint, but resulted in a crisis that remains unresolved. If one had to judge, the only certain consequence of this change has been the domination of social life by capital, by the imperatives of reproducing not merely privately-owned means of production, but also—or rather, especially—wage labor.

The problem posed by capital is unprecedented in history, and so also is the struggle to overcome it. Recognizing what was new would mean understanding how it came to distinguish itself from what came before: how the social relation of capital emerged historically, what it could potentially mean. Marx did not assimilate the problem of capital to the perennial problem of scarcity, but rather tried to understand why the last two hundred years have amounted to such a profound disruption in the course of history. Marx understood the modern period defined by the bourgeois revolutions to be an incomplete transition from the class society that began 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution, to a new society that realizes the potentials created in the ordeal of class society.

Bookchin contrasts “a repressive class society, based on material scarcity” with “a liberatory classless society, based on material abundance”, the latter supposedly a unique product of the technological advances of the 20th century. Yet Marx understood class society as based not on scarcity but “abundance”: on society producing more than is necessary to maintain the direct producers. The fragile production of subsistence through agriculture could only be sustained through the production of a surplus consumed by a class of non-producers that oversaw the affairs of society as a whole. This “ruling” class would maintain themselves even at the cost of subjecting the direct producers to the pains of insufficient production, depriving them of an adequate share of their own product.

Society henceforth has been dependent on the production of a surplus product and hence the maintenance of a ruling class, who exploit the production of the rest of society in lieu of engaging in productive labor themselves. Society has been capable of producing abundance since the Neolithic. Crises of underproduction would periodically eliminate large portions of the population, whether through famine and starvation, epidemic, or warfare, but over the longue durée society has survived underproduction. Marx was concerned with the distinctively new kind of crisis that afflicted bourgeois society: crises of overproduction. Not of abundance that temporarily gives way to scarcity, but of overabundance presenting itself in the form of scarcity: overabundant material wealth was experienced by the vast majority as the depreciation of the value of their labor, itself as a consequence of the increase in the productivity of labor.

As labor becomes more productive, labor becomes more dispensable. Marx ridiculed John Stuart Mill’s puzzlement over the fact that the introduction of machinery did not lighten but increased the burden of the workers, because he understood that so long as individuals were dependent on the opportunity to find employment to subsist, automation would be used as a weapon by employers against the working class, to keep labor as cheap and pliable as possible and to liquidate whatever obstacles organized labor might throw up. To borrow a phrase of Max Horkheimer, machinery “made not work but the workers superfluous.”[4]

Marx recognized that socialism was a symptom of capital. It is not in spite, but precisely because the working class is an integral part of capitalism that its politics could articulate potentials capitalism itself only realizes negatively. Bookchin relates Marx’s “famous theory of immiseration”, according to which capitalism, in relentlessly driving down the conditions of the working class, compels them to “revolt”. Yet this does not capture the historical dynamics Marx actually describes, in which workers are first compelled to organize among themselves in their “economic struggle” over specific terms of employment, organizations that must grow and spread and change along with capital. This culminates in the necessity of organizing the working class “as a class”. For Marx, this meant political organization for socialism, as socialism meant society taking control of itself and realizing its own potential, as the fruit of its cooperation in labor.

When Bookchin says, “Social revolutions are not made by parties, groups or cadres, they occur as a result of deep-seated historic forces and contradictions that activate large sections of the population”, he fails to note that for Marx, the “deep-seated” and “historic” character of these forces is articulated in the formation of the socialist party, which gives substance to the “tension between the actual and the possible, between what-is and what-could-be.” By contrast, as Bookchin himself notes, “Abject misery alone does not produce revolutions; more often than not, it produces an aimless demoralization, or worse, a private, personalized struggle to survive.” It is hard not to suspect that what Bookchin in the same pamphlet valorized as the revolutionary degeneration of society produced little more than such misery, the very sort of abjection that capitalism yields when the working class is unable to articulate in political terms its historic interests in overcoming the necessity of labor.

When the socialist party fails, the task falls to defenders of capitalism, for whom the overcoming of necessary labor can only manifest itself in the superfluousness of workers, or would-be workers who increasingly fall into permanent unemployment and underemployment.

While Bookchin claims Marx was unable to foresee the development of state capitalism, he was in fact acutely aware that in the absence of the political leadership of the working class, capitalism could only become ever more centralized and authoritarian, ultimately requiring the state to manage a society riven by intolerable contradictions. This was the definitive lesson of Marx’s own political experience: the failure of the socialists to lead the revolutions of 1848, specifically in France, led to what Marx called “Bonapartism” and later Marxists, invoking the “Second Empire” of Louis Bonaparte, called “imperialism”. Marx warned that if the task dramatically posed by 1848—the political leadership of capitalism by the working class party for socialism in the form of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—remained unaccomplished, the only result would be the degeneration of society under the dictatorship of capital.

Today, we can only look back at Bookchin’s injunction and wonder whether the need for Marxism has in fact been overcome by capitalism itself, and if so, whether this has been desirable. After all, coal and steel remain the basis of industrial technology, while the periodic crises Bookchin consigned to a bygone era have returned with a vengeance. Bookchin himself now belongs to the very past he implored his readers to shed for the sake of the future. Indeed, if there is today no future to speak of, it is because the future itself belongs to the past, and it is to the past we must turn if we wish to go beyond the present.


[1] Chris Cutrone, “Capital in history” <http://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/capital-in-history-the-need-for-a-marxian-philosophy-of-history-of-the-left/>

[2] quoted in Janet Biehl, “Bookchin’s Trotskyist decade: 1939–1948” <http://platypus1917.org/2012/12/01/bookchins-trotskyist-decade-1939-1948/>

[3] Murray Bookchin, Listen, Marxist! All uncited quotations that follow refer here.

[4] Max Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State”