Review of “Recovering Bookchin” by Andy Price




Author/journalist Debbie Bookchin and ISE Board member Bea Bookchin offer this in-depth review of Andy Price’s new book, Recovering Bookchin (New Compass Press, November 2012):


In his important new book Recovering Bookchin, Andy Price has set himself a formidable task: he takes up the corpus of criticism of Murray Bookchin that developed during the last 20 years of his life and disentangles the valid, content-based criticism, from the many ad hominem and polemical attacks against Bookchin, showing how the latter were used to almost completely obscure the former and cast aside Bookchin’s substantive critique. Equally important, Price addresses the content-based criticism, in the process illuminating the richness of Bookchin’s theoretical and political philosophy and restoring him to his rightful role as one of the most important radical thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century.

While such a task might have resulted in a book reserved for those already familiar with Bookchin’s work, that is not the case here: Price, a senior lecturer in Politics at Sheffield Hallam University, U.K., provides such a clear rendering not only of Bookchin’s thought, but also of the concerns of Bookchin’s critics, that his book serves also as one of the most cohesive and readable introductions to the philosophy and social theory of Murray Bookchin.

After describing the enormous impact that Bookchin’s ideas and writing had on radical political thought prior to 1987, Price focuses on two specific periods of Bookchin’s work. The first begins with the Gathering of American Greens conference in Amherst in 1987 that initiated the social ecology vs. deep ecology debate. The second begins eight years later in 1995 with the social anarchism vs. lifestyle anarchism, and subsequently, anarchism vs. communalism debates. Price provides a detailed summary of the long literature in which these debates and argumentation took place and shows that Bookchin’s criticisms of these two movements stemmed not from an egotistical desire to protect his turf, or some kind of querulous argumentative streak, as his critics contended, but were compelled by the need to defend and explicate the philosophical and political implications of his life’s work.  These interventions by Bookchin, Price explains, were “a direct philosophical and political expression of his own theoretical foundations.”

Price first examines the criticism from the social ecology vs. deep ecology debate, centering on arguments by Naess, Devall, Sessions, Forman, and Manes. He provides a synthesis of the main precepts of deep ecology, its non-interventionist stance with respect to nature resulting in a racist and misanthropic view of human beings, and describes how Bookchin’s critique of this tendency in the ecology movement stemmed from his long-standing view that human beings as “second nature” or nature rendered self-conscious, were not apart from the natural world but an expression of the natural world, one whose destiny was to intervene—but in a rational fashion. In one of his many incisive renderings of Bookchin’s philosophy, Price explains that for Bookchin, “humanity, the human intellect and human reason, and the rest of the characteristics that make humanity unique, are not alien to natural evolution, but are solely one end of the continuum of evolution that inheres in all of nature: that is, that humanity in all its forms, creative and destructive is a direct product of natural evolution. In the reduction of this important process in deep ecology, where humanity as such is seen as blight on the natural world, humanity is removed from its place in natural evolution, and this abstracted humanity is subordinated to a static nature. Here, all the attendant lessons of the processes of natural evolution are lost as humanity is divested of its potentiality to play a continuing part in this evolutionary continuum.” The key political question, for Bookchin, was not whether humanity should intervene but how humanity should intervene in the natural world, and in what form this intervention should take.

Instead of addressing Bookchin’s theoretical critique of their position, deep ecologists Sessions, Devall, Foreman and others deployed a barrage of ad hominem characterizations about Bookchin to discredit him, using loaded language that repeatedly portrayed him as “attacking” them to protect his “turf.”  Price peels away these layers of obfuscation, examining how the unsubstantiated and emotionally-charged rhetoric avoids engagement with the substance of Bookchin’s critique, a critique, which Price notes, is premised on “a spirited defense of humanity—of human reason, human society, and of the role it has to play in averting the ecological crisis—against the inconsistencies and misanthropy of deep ecology.” For Bookchin, deep ecology not only provided no agency for human beings, but was fundamentally reactionary in its reading of history and ecology. Given the substance of Bookchin’s critique and the detailed philosophy of nature on which it was based, Price calls the “misreading (or non-reading) of Bookchin” by these deep ecologists “astounding.”

It is to his credit that Price extensively explores the deep ecology literature seeking out kernels of genuine theoretical disagreement in some of the less polemical attacks of Bookchin’s position as put forth by Eckersley, Albrecht, Alexander, Leff, and occasionally John Clark. He describes, for example, how Eckersley believes there is nothing to validate Bookchin’s claim of a liberatory potentiality in natural evolution over the more destructive tendencies that can be seen in the natural world. Price answers that for Bookchin, “the existence of the potentiality does not automatically mean it will necessarily be fulfilled.” As Bookchin observes: the potentiality contains only “a message of freedom not of necessity; it speaks to an immanent striving for realization not a predetermined certainty of completion.”

In similar fashion, the criticism of each of these writers is presented, explicated, and then refuted. Contrary to the depiction studiously crafted by the deep ecologists, Price shows that Bookchin’s critique stemmed from “a richly elaborated set of theoretical principles” that can be traced to some of Bookchin’s earliest writing and that had been developed over the previous 30 years, ideas which deserve to be examined and critiqued on their merits. Thus, he not only defends the validity of Bookchin’s critique of deep ecology, but in the process elaborates Bookchin’s singular contribution to ecological thought by laying out the philosophical basis of his philosophy of nature and illustrating how Bookchin’s critique is based on this opus.

In the middle section of his book, Price mines the critical literature for intelligent criticism, or what he terms the “robust” criticism, of Bookchin’s positions, and here offers us a glimpse of the kind of new scholarship and debate that Bookchin’s work deserves and that we might hope to see in the future. He suggests that Bookchin’s writing on the emergence of hierarchy and other forms of domination, based as it was on scant anthropological evidence available at the time he wrote The Ecology of Freedom, is subject to criticism from those who might question whether he produces sufficient evidence for his conception of society before the emergence of hierarchy and during the transition to hierarchical society. Scholars, he says, are correct in asking whether Bookchin is historically accurate in his portrayal of the emergence of hierarchy from organic society and whether, for example, Bookchin’s legacy of domination and legacy of freedom provide adequate grounds upon which to understand the movement of history.

Price examines these claims and others and offers a defense of Bookchin’s views. Among recent developments in ethnography, for example, he cites the work of prominent anthropologist David Graeber who presents a convincing argument that while much ethnographic study reveals the existence of non-statist, non-hierarchical forms of organization, anthropologists “have been terrified of being accused of romanticizing the societies they study.” Though Graeber does not share Bookchin’s conclusions, he believes that “one obvious role for a radical intellectual is to do precisely that: look at those who are creating viable alternatives, try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are (already) doing, and then offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions but as contributions, possibilities,” an approach, Price says, that “is an almost word for word account of the way in which Bookchin used his anthropological and ethnographic materials.”

Price takes up other controversies as well in what he calls the “central motor” of Bookchin’s social theory and in each case provides a lucid description of the criticisms of (and in some cases apparent contradictions within) Bookchin’s work, and then offers an informed defense of Bookchin’s positions based on both objective evidence and on the philosophical precepts contained within Bookchin’s philosophy and social theory. Equally important as his efforts to “recover Bookchin” from the ad hominem attacks of the deep ecologists and anarchists, these sections of Price’s book excite because they engage Bookchin’s philosophy and political theory systematically and advance the critical scholarship that Bookchin’s theoretic deserves.

Finally, in the last quarter of his book, Price turns to an examination of Bookchin’s criticism of anarchist politics. He describes the furor following Bookchin’s publication in 1995 of the lengthy article “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm” in which Bookchin accused modern day anarchists of having lost sight of the social dimensions of their cause and therefore of the social solutions. In this piece Bookchin offers an caustic repudiation of those tendencies within anarchism that emphasize direct action, and what Bookchin called, “ad hoc adventurism, personal bravura, an aversion to theory oddly akin to the anti-rational biases of postmodernism, celebrations of theoretical incoherence (pluralism), a basically apolitical and anti-organizational commitment to imagination, desire, and ecstasy, and an immensely self-oriented enchantment of every day life” which “reflect the toll that social reaction has taken on Euro-American anarchism over the past two decades.”

Price suggests that Bookchin’s rancorous tone in this piece was due in part to the fact that Bookchin was exhausted by eight years of arguing with the deep ecologists. He criticizes Bookchin—and rightly so—for addressing the young “lifestyle” anarchists so acerbically, noting that since Bookchin contends that the interplay between the underlying contradictory tendencies of individualistic anarchism and collectivist anarchism are dependent largely on the scale of social repression, “then it follows that the emergence of lifestyle anarchism requires a sympathetic rather than harshly critical approach.” If this tendency found expression because of “the reactionary social context” of the 1990s, Price contends, its adherents, “are in need of guidance, not of upbraiding.”

Yet, uncharitable as Bookchin might have been in this work, Price says, the vehemence and personal nature of the counter-attacks were absurdly out of proportion and served once again to almost completely obscure the valid theoretical underpinnings of Bookchin’s critique. As Price observes, once again Bookchin’s motives were questioned, the charges against him were mostly personal in nature, and the valuable contribution of his thinking was lost to polemic.

During the battle that unfolded between Bookchin and the anarchist theorists, Bookchin criticized the writings of Clark, Zerzan, Bey, Brown and Watson, (some of whom wrote under pseudonyms; Clark as Cafard, and Watson as Bradford), for, among other things, “rooting the ills of society in ‘civilization’ rather than capital and hierarchy, in the ‘mega-machine’ rather than the commodification of everyday life, and in shadowy ‘simulations’ rather than the very tangible tyranny of material want and exploitation.” Price describes the fierce, extremely personal nature of the responses that ensued, particularly those of Bob Black, John Clark and Joel Kovel, the latter two having being one time Bookchin collaborators, and quotes at length from Clark. He suggests that “the personal name-calling and slurs are too plentiful to even list” and wisely leaves it to “the reader to draw their own conclusions on their quality.”

Price concludes that, “The more problematic aspects of his 1995 critique of lifestyle anarchists should not be overstated. That is, the brevity and perhaps even the uncharitable tone of Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism do not amount to the attempt to push out all other creeds except his own that so many accused him of. Nor do they suggest, as Cafard [Clark] argued, that had lifestyle anarchism or deep ecology never appeared, Bookchin ‘would be attacking some other competing philosophy.’ On the contrary, exactly like his exchange with the deep ecologists, the genesis of Bookchin’s disagreement with lifestyle anarchism can be seen to be the result of his career long commitment [to]…an anarchism that is pro-organization, pro-empowerment, and pro-its own constant self-evaluation.”

Here again, Price is not content to criticize the critics: he separates the name-calling from the substantive and interrogates Bookchin’s concept of communalism to tease out whether his political program—his libertarian municipalist commitment to citizens assemblies, local elections and confederalism—provides a basis for his criticism of anarchist politics and is sustainable in its own right. Price examines Bookchin’s distinction between “statecraft” and “politics,” his notion of power, and particularly his concept of building a dual power in opposition to the state, simultaneously addressing Bookchin’s critics and illustrating how these practical manifestations of Bookchin’s widening social theory form the foundation of his critique of anarchism.

“It is argued here,” Price asserts, “that the political program outlined above is Bookchin at his most utopian—and yet most practical. His is a program that calls for the complete remaking of society, yet does so through concrete organization and realist interpretations of power…This dual focus on both utopianism and practicality, on the creation of the forms of freedom yet with a constant watch on the forms of social domination, imparts a uniqueness to the Bookchin program that perhaps explains some of the difficulties he would have with the movements to which he belonged.”

Price maintains that it was Bookchin’s lifelong goal of uniting revolutionary ideals—that is, his philosophical commitments—with the political practice they necessitate, and his striving for not only a rational and coherent society, but rational and coherent movements in opposition to the existing society, that motivated his criticisms of deep ecology and anarchism. And it is Price’s honest evaluation of this immense project—assessing its philosophy, social theory and political practice—that points to a direction for future discussion. Having resuscitated this work from under the detritus of personal attack, having eloquently presented the foundations of Bookchin’s thought and the substantive objections as well, Price shows that while there is much to debate in Bookchin’s theoretic, despite the claims some critics have tried to levy, “there is nothing that undermines his project as a whole, there is no terminal contradiction that renders the project obsolete.”

On the contrary, the time for an appreciation of the grand scale and originality of Bookchin’s project, its reevaluation, and further elaboration, is at hand. “The objections we have raised to the Bookchin theoretic are in fact useful to Bookchin and social ecology: once exposed to a full analysis these objections can help to qualify his project, help to point to the areas of his work that are perhaps under-examined or inadequately explained. The task now is to develop this theoretic further.”

By clearing a path for this task, Andy Price has rendered us an incalculable service. It is a task, he observes, that the ecological crisis on our doorstep necessitates more than ever before.