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Recovering Bookchin by Andy PriceRe-visiting social ecology

Murray Bookchin was a radical American social and political theorist and activist, known for his significant contributions to anarchist political theory and green political thought. His ideas inspired a generation of ‘social ecologists’. Susan Jappie introduces an attempt to recover his ideas from a barrage of personal attacks.

Andy Price’s purpose is to re-instate the reputation of this original thinker. Murray Bookchin’s ideas are most relevant to the present crises in Earth's natural and social environments. More than that, he pointed to the link between the two, and to possible ways of resolving them. He proposed a political process which is close to that of A World To Win, involving the revival of politics through People's Assemblies.

Bookchin was a philosopher who embraced ecology, communism and then anarchism, but was always ready to point out the limitations of the way in which these movements developed. This earned him some vocal enemies who undermined his reputation through personal attacks leading to a caricature of the real man, which has meant that his revolutionary ideas have been buried. Andy Price dedicates his theoretically challenging book to digging them up again, taking each debate in turn.

In the words of Bookchin:

The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man. But it was not until organic community relation . dissolved into market relationships that the planet itself was reduced to a resource for exploitation.

This centuries-long tendency finds its most exacerbating development in modern capitalism.

Owing to its inherently competitive nature, bourgeois society not only pits humans against each other, it also pits the mass of humanity against the natural world. Just as men are converted into commodities, so every aspect of nature is converted into a commodity, a resource to be manufactured and merchandised wantonly.

The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital.

The first controversy arose around the issue of ‘deep ecology’, whose proponents challenged the anthropocentric view of the world and demanded that humans left nature alone. This was expressed in the view that aid to Ethiopians undergoing famine should be withdrawn to let nature take its course! The implicit racism of this enraged Bookchin when he was invited to address a conference of American Greens in 1987 and he made sure everyone knew how he felt.

The idea that ecological crisis was down to human over-population led to even more extreme suggestions by some ecologists that the HIV virus was nature's way of correcting this problem. Bookchin dismissed these arguments as based on seeing humanity as separate from and in conflict with nature, instead of being part of the evolution of life, a view he called social ecology.

The second area of conflict examined surrounds Bookchin’s challenge to the anarchist movement in the 1970s, which, he said, had become too individualistic to take any effective political action. He saw the student anti-war protests as mere theatre, lacking the organisation needed to bring about change. Less than ten years after his quarrel with deep ecologists, he wrote a very scathing article entitled Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, which led to former supporters turning against him.

This leads into the political arena, for Bookchin rejected the ‘anarchist’ term in favour of ‘communalism’ to explain how society could/should evolve. He has been accused of rejecting everything about Marxism, but he agreed with Marx's dialectical approach and class analysis as valid for his time. But Bookchin argued that communism had gone wrong by overlapping the concepts of politics and state, so repeating the hierarchical structures of capitalism.

Bookchin uses the term politics in its original Greek meaning: the empowerment of the people through co-operating in municipal assemblies, which would confederate to challenge the mainstream establishment. This is the ‘social’ part of the equation; his ‘ecology’ refers to the idea that humans, as part of nature, are still evolving in terms of their consciousness with the possibility of choosing to live in harmony with each other and the planet.

At this time of crisis, these ideas are so important that Price has felt it worthwhile to examine and address all the intellectual and political arguments against Bookchin's work, so he could be ‘recovered’ and we can make use of his philosophical insights and pragmatic calls to action.

6 December 2012

Recovering Bookchin: Social Ecology and the Crises of Our Time, Andy Price, New Compass, 19.95

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