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(en) US, black rose fed: REVIEW: THE NEXT REVOLUTION BY MURRAY BOOKCHIN
Thu, 8 Nov 2018 06:36:00 +0200
Review of The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy by
Murray Bookchin. Edited by Debbie Bookchin and Blair Taylor, preface by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Verso, December 2014. Free PDF of the book here. ---- By Anarcho ---- Murray Bookchin
(1921-2006) was for four decades a leading anarchist thinker and writer. His many articles
and books - Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Toward an Ecological Society, The Ecology of Freedom
and a host of others - are libertarian classics and influential in the wider green
movement. However, in 1995 he became involved in a vicious polemic over various negative
aspects of (primarily American) anarchism with the publication of his Social Anarchism or
Lifestyle Anarchism which, in 1999, saw him break with anarchism completely, denouncing it
as inherently individualist. Still considering himself a libertarian socialist, he now
called his politics "Communalism" rather than "Social Ecology" or "Social Anarchism."
This context is important in order to understand this often contradictory collection of
essays, for the work combines articles written between 1992 and 2002 and so ones before
and after his break with anarchism. This means he indicates the anarchist pedigree of his
"Commune of communes" in some chapters (63, 95) while proclaiming anarchism as being
against organization in others. So following a preface by the late, great, Ursula Le Guin
and an introduction by Debbie Bookchin and Blair Taylor, we have nine chapters by
Bookchin on a range of subjects written over a range of times and this produces the key
flaw in the work: denunciations of anarchism sit next to praise for it.
What of these denunciations? It is hard to take them seriously. It is depressing to read
someone who has actually read anarchist thinkers come out with the same sort of nonsense
as a hack of a Marxist party parroting claims made by others about people they have
obviously never read. Just as sad is that every one of his claims against anarchism can be
refuted by quoting from his early works. For his list of anarchist flaws - individualism,
primitivism, etc. - were once directed at his own ideas by Marxists and he refuted them
Space precludes using Bookchin to refute Bookchin, so I will concentrate on a few issues.
Sadly, post-break Bookchin is not above selective quoting when it comes to anarchism - for
example, he quotes Kropotkin on rejecting majority rule (10) when he surely knew that on
the page in question Kropotkin was discussing "parliamentary rule, and representative
government altogether." Also, after decades of denouncing syndicalism for impoverishing
anarchism, he turned around and proclaimed the superiority of the former as regards the
latter - while also ignoring how he had shown that the first of the revolutionary
anarchists had advocated syndicalism as a tactic. Likewise, Bookchin asserted post-break
that "anarchists conceive of power essentially as a malignant evil that must be destroyed"
(139) yet also quotes Bakunin on the need for the "development and organization of the
nonpolitical or antipolitical social power of the working class in city and country." (12)
As he himself noted long ago, "power" can mean two things, power to do and power over, and
for the former to flourish, it needs the latter to be destroyed. So power over - hierarchy
- must be destroyed if we want power to manage our own lives.
Bookchin points to the Spanish Revolution as evidence of Anarchism's failure here. Yet his
discussion of this ("Anarchism and Power in the Spanish Revolution") ignores the
circumstances in which the CNT decided to postpone the social revolution in favor of
caricatures on anarchist theory. He position is that anarchism is blind to the need for
institutions to replace the State and this blindness lead the CNT not to "seize power."
Yet anarchism has anyways been clear on what to do in a revolution - replace the State by
federations of workers' organisations. The CNT obviously failed to do so in July 1936 with
obvious negative results - but the question, as Bookchin surely knew, is why they failed
to apply anarchist ideas. To understand that needs context - essentially fear of isolation
and the real possibility of having to fight both the Republic and the Fascists if social
revolution was pursued - which Bookchin fails to provide.
Instead, we get the same superficial analysis that embarrasses Marxist journals. The only
difference is that Bookchin calls this new system a "government" rather than "state." So
Bookchin post-break was against the State but for government - "government" being used to
describe collective decision making. Just as Engels equated agreement with authority,
Bookchin came to equate governance with government. This is hardly convincing.
So the post-break articles present a travesty of anarchism by someone who knew better.
Given Bookchin's revisionism, it is unsurprising that the authors of the introduction
assert that popular assemblies were "viewed with suspicion by anarchists." (xviii) This in
spite of Proudhon praising the popular clubs of the 1848 revolution, Bakunin urging
federation by quartier (neighbourhood) and Kropotkin pointing to the popular assemblies of
the Great French Revolution - just as Bookchin did!
Ironically, many of the traits of "anarchism" Bookchin came to deplore and which caused
his break with anarchism could be traced to certain elements of his 1960s works - even if
these were selectively used and exaggerated to the point of travesty by others, they were
there as his critics in the 1990s reminded Bookchin in their polemics against him.
Bookchin seems like someone who found it hard to admit being wrong - and so broke with
anarchism rather than admit this. Yes, some self-proclaimed anarchists have silly notions
(primitivism obviously springs to mind) and some tendencies can have little in common with
the main current of social anarchism. Likewise, some anarchist have little time for long
term strategy and involve themselves in small-scale, insular projects. Yet this is not
anarchism as such. Rather than expect all anarchists to come together it is far better to
organize with like-minded people and ignore those whose politics and activities are a
dead-end. Instead, Bookchin rejected anarchism - talk about cutting off your nose to spite
So what of any substantive points between his new politics and anarchism? This are just a
few. One is the question of "majority rule." As he put it in a particularly overheated
‘It is primarily by giving priority to an ideologically petrified notion of an "autonomous
individual" that anarchists justify their opposition not only to the state but to any form
of constraint, law, and often organization and democratic decision-making based on
majority voting. All such constraints are dismissed in principle as forms of "coercion,"
"domination," "government," and even "tyranny"-often as though these terms were coequal
and interchangeable.' (160-1)
Ignoring the awkward fact - which Bookchin was once aware - that the likes of Proudhon,
Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, etc. not only did not speak in those terms but also
explicitly attacked such notions, we should note that majority decision making within
freely joined associations is hardly the same as majority rule. In addition, anyone acting
in the manner Bookchin describes within an anarchist group would be asked to leave, and
rightly so. Nor, for that matter, is "consensus" an "authentic" anarchist principle (25) -
you would be hard pressed to find any classical anarchist thinker - "authentic" or
otherwise! - discussing it. Kropotkin mentions it in passing, when discussing the Russian
mir and that is about it.
Why are anarchists concerned about talk of majority rule? It is quite simple: majorities
have often oppressed minorities - we need only think of sectarianism, sexism, racism,
homophobia and such like to see that the majority need not always be right. Ironically,
Bookchin admits this (94) but does not attempt to square it with his fetishization of
"majority rule." And this is an issue. For example, he proclaims that a community which
joins a confederation "may withdraw only with the approval of the confederation as a
whole." (15) So Bookchin's "libertarian" confederation provides less rights than the UK
(with regards the referendum on Scottish independence) and the European Union (with
regards Brexit). Yet why is it just at a confederal level? If this is a good and
democratic principle, why does it not apply to every association? So a worker can only
leave their job if the majority of the workplace agrees? So a family can only leave a
community if the majority of the local citizenry approve? A wife or husband from a family?
Simple: for it would clearly be unfree.
Similarly, his "libertarian" democracy appears less than that guaranteed by our statist
ones for he argues that after losing the debate "the minority must have patience and allow
a majority decision to be put into practice" (61) and there would be "the commitment of
municipal minorities to defer to the majority wishes of participating communities." (88)
Yet, today, the right of minorities to protest exists (if always under threat by the
State, always ready to proclaim its "undemocratic" nature). Would libertarian municipalism
really not allow minorities to protest, to use direct action, when the majority acts in
ways which we cannot wait addressing or simply cannot be undone?
A more flexible perspective is needed, particularly given Bookchin admits that there is no
"guarantee" that "a majority decision will be a correct one." (88) What if the majority
make racist, sexist, homophobic or ecologically destructive decisions? Can an "unswerving
opposition to racism, gender oppression, and domination as such" (135) be limited to mere
words or can minorities protest against them by direct action? If so, then his
fetishisation of majority rule needs to be reviewed. True, Bookchin stressed the
importance of minority rights (25) - but to do so automatically means admitting
(implicitly at least) the flaws of his position and the validity of anarchist concerns
over terms like "majority rule."
Still, this has little bearing on the day-to-day decisions of freely joined associations
in which majority-decision making will, undoubtedly, be the norm - with even a written
constitution, when appropriate - in the struggle against oppression today and any future
free society. Those who fetishise consensus (and there are a few, I am sure) can associate
with those who feel the same - and leave the others to get on with changing the world
rather than just discussing it.
Yet does Bookchin actually advocate majority rule? The answer is no, for he indicates
(52-3) that all revolutions are the work of active minorities and that he does not expect
the majority of a population to take part in his neighbourhood assemblies. So we have
decisions being made by a majority of a minority, in other words minority rule. So for all
his bluster, his "democratic" politics ends up recognizing the key role minorities play in
social change and that they often have to push forward in the face of the indifference of
the majority: as Kropotkin, Goldman and many other anarchists indicated.
So we are left with Bookchin agreeing that the majority cannot, say, ban women from
leaving the house without being accompanied by a man nor that neighborhood assembly
decisions are invalid unless a majority of people in the community attend. Which makes you
wonder why he was so focused on majority rule to the extent of destroying his own legacy.
The Weak Embrace of Libertarian Municipalism
As for "libertarian municipalism," it is clear why few anarchists embraced it:
"Communalists do not hesitate to run candidates in municipal elections who, if elected,
would use what real power their offices confer to legislate popular assemblies into
existence." (30) The notion of standing in local elections as a means of creating popular
assemblies and then federating them was always unconvincing. Particularly given the
all-to-correct predictions of anarchists on the effects of electioneering. Indeed,
Bookchin himself repeats these and provides examples of it (83-4) - but seems to think
this only happens at a national level. He also seems unaware that the national State can
and does control the autonomy of local municipal councils and this strategy could easily
mutate into national electioneering in the mistaken view of ensuring needed reforms for
the local strategy. Electioneering is indeed a slippery slope which even the repeated
experience of history does not seem to affect.
Anarchists, regardless of Bookchin's revisionism, are well aware of the need for
federations of community assemblies in both the struggle for liberation and as part of the
structure for the post-capitalist society. Kropotkin, for example, discussed their role in
his book The Great French Revolution and indicated that "the libertarians would no doubt
do the same today." However, these were viewed as a genuine dual-power created in
opposition to the State - a community syndicalism, as it were - rather than something
bestowed by a suitably enlightened local municipal council[city government]. Nor was this
considered the only means - Kropotkin also advocated a syndicalist strategy as both a
means of winning reforms now and for providing the framework of managing workplaces during
and after a social revolution. Bookchin knew all this and so it is depressing to read him
Rejecting Bookchin's electioneering does not mean rejecting building federations of
community assemblies, especially within the context of building other federations of
associations (such as radical unions). Likewise, his notion of dissolving all associations
into a single communal one does not take into account the complexities of modern life.
Such community assemblies would be the forum for overseeing the others - to protect
against, say, workplaces becoming proprietary as Bookchin rightly warns (19, 72) - but
they can hardly be called upon to actually manage them on a day-to-day basis.
Kropotkin and other anarchists bemoaned the State and its attempts to centralize all
aspects of social life and place them in the hands of a few representatives who had no
real notion of what they were deciding upon. Doing the same but at the base of society may
not be as problematic but it does have issues - not least, the volume of issues that would
need to be discussed. So there is a pressing need for a functional federalism as well as a
communal federalism. This suggests a diverse associational life embracing all aspects of
the world - so if Kropotkin and Malatesta argued that syndicalists focused on one aspect
of society (the economic) and ignored the other two (community and leisure), Bookchin
likewise focused on one (the community) at the expense of the others.
So, to conclude. This is a mixed selection of articles - with the pre-break ones being by
far the best. The post-break ones often just repeat what Bookchin previously - rightly! -
called anarchism but with snide anti-anarchist remarks added.
I still remember the joy I experienced reading Post-Scarcity Anarchism thirty years ago -
here was someone who both understood anarchism and built upon it. Yet in the last decade
of his life he produced works which were marred by anti-anarchist tirades which he surely
knew were nonsense. Which leaves us with a conundrum: if you utilize his earlier works,
could not his later works be quoted to show that even a leading anarchist eventually saw
its deep flaws? If you embrace his later anti-anarchist works, how could you reference in
good-faith his earlier contributions?
Yes, Bookchin did do the latter but then he also sought to rewrite his past to suggest he
had seen through anarchism at a very early stage or had never "really" been an anarchist
at all. This was all very unbecoming - particularly given the numerous quotes from the
early 1990s proclaiming his long-standing and continuing commitment to anarchism.
Ultimately, Bookchin left a wealth of books and articles between the 1960s and 1990s which
anarchists today can draw upon, even if his strategy of "libertarian municipalism" is
deeply flawed. So while The Next Revolution does contain important pieces which activists
today would benefit from reading, it pales against his earlier works. These should be read
first, simply to ensure that when reading the anti-anarchist remarks in this book the
pre-break Bookchin will be fresh in your memory to refute them.
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