Book review: “Recovering Bookchin” by Andy Price (2012)

BOOK REVIEW

Recovering Bookchin by Andy Price (New Compass, 2012), 260pp. More information here.

Back in the 1980s, the emerging Green political movement was looking for an alternative to conventional politics and became enamored with a “new paradigm” based on holism. The earth is a living whole, a unitary system, ran the adopted view, and we dwellers upon it should peacefully seek consensus over conflict, diversity over monoculture, and symbiosis over polarization. A new ecological spirituality, worshipping nature, even an earth goddess, pervaded the movement.

Andy Price Recovering BookchinAmid the nodding bliss, a tendency emerged within the movement that was poised to test the mettle of the “new paradigm.” According to deep ecology (the philosophy) and Earth First! (the activists), humans are radically distinct from the rest of nature. With their civilization and their technology, they are a blight on the biosphere; they should change their ways and humble themselves before untouched wilderness. One deep ecologist even outrageously declared that the world should allow people in famine-stricken Ethiopia–impoverished black people–to starve to death, in order to reduce population numbers, to let nature take its course.

The ecology movement, steeped in mellow, embracing diversity, initially seemed at a loss to challenge this ugly development. But Murray Bookchin, who had come out of a contentious leftist tradition and who had been propounding what he called “social ecology” for half a century, had no trouble finding his voice. In 1987 he took the deep ecologists to task for promulgating the misanthropy and even racism. It’s capitalism, it’s hierarchy, it’s domination that’s causing the ecological crisis, he said–our social arrangements–not people as such.

It’s easy to understand what Bookchin meant by “social ecology” when contrasted with deep ecology. Debates bring out the contrasts between ideas and let us weigh their merits more easily than a straightforward, linear exposition might do. That was why Bookchin himself often affirmed that argument is not only healthy but necessary in order to to clarify ideas,

But so mellow had the eco-movement become that, instead of rallying to Bookchin’s side, as any humane person would have done, most of its members turned against him and cried instead for harmony and reconciliation. When Bookchin, astounded, refused to reconcile himself to racist misanthropy, the greens attacked him. Since they had no intellectual or political ground upon which to stand, they resorted to ad hominem gossip and personal caricature. They said his tone was unpleasant and unduly harsh. They accused him of waging a “turf war” and seeking to foment a “redgreen putsch.” Bookchin gave as good as he got, but the fight became bitter. By the time he died in 2006, the embers had long since cooled, but his reputation was still tainted as that of an ornery, peevish, resentful old man.

***

Andy Price, a native of Manchester, U.K., never met Bookchin, but in the early 2000s, having enrolled at his local university, he began to pore over Bookchin’s writings, paying special attention to this debate. As he waded through the jabs and counter-jabs, parsing the ad hominem slurs, carefully examining the debate with a fresh outsider’s eye, he kept thinking (as he recounts) that in the next paragraph he would finally come to a the intellectual substance of the greens’ objection to Bookchin’s argument–they would finally make a serious rejoinder. But he never found it.

He has now written Recovering Bookchin, his first book, to clear away the smoke and debris raised by the fracas and shine a light on the thing that went missing from the angry greens’ side: content. In terms of content, he concludes, the deep ecologists and their apologists, for all their fulminations, never laid a glove on Murray Bookchin.

Price’s book not only “recovers” Bookchin from the 1990s mud-slinging; it validates Bookchin’s thesis that argumentation (as opposed to mindless, nodding consensus) clarifies ideas. Not only is it an essential text for all future study of social ecology; it will likely educate even many current social ecologists about just what social ecology is.

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Some leftist literature dissects the ills of the existing society, revealing its many abuses and injustices: it is engaged with the “what is.” Another sort of literature is prospective, envisioning alternative social arrangements in works that range from utopian dreams to detailed blueprints: the “what should be.”

Bookchin’s work ranges over the terrain between the two, the realm that lies between the “what is” and the “what should be.” There in that intermediate zone, as Price makes clear, Bookchin looked for actual pathways that could take us from the existing society to a new, rational one that would be both ecological and humane. By examining these potentialities, dialectically, he tried to show the radical left how, beyond mounting rallies and protests demonstrations, it could embark on the formidable process of making a transition to the good society.

But as Price shows, even Bookchin’s more sophisticated critics, accustomed to more conventional ways of thinking, misunderstood this about him, misunderstood the dialectical nature of his cast of mind and of his writing and of his entire project. Does Bookchin tell us (in his book The Ecology of Freedom) that long ago, in “organic” or tribal societies, people lived harmoniously? Then, his critics say, he is guilty of misrepresentation, since he has neglected to inform us that intertribal warfare was endemic in those societies as well. Does Bookchin writes about cities (in many works, including Urbanization Without Cities)? Then, his critics say, he must be in favor of cities as they are today, anonymous, sterile, concrete moonscapes. Does Bookchin designate the citizen (rather than the worker) the agent of revolutionary change? That is intolerable, say his anarchist critics, for “citizen” is a statist concept. Does Bookchin find that a path toward change runs through existing city government? Then that clinches the case against him as a statist, for the city today is merely a miniature nation-state.

In each of these and other objections made by Bookchin’s critics in the more sober 1990s debates, Price shows that Bookchin was misunderstood. If he high highlighted the peaceable cooperative qualities of “organic society,” it was simply to show us that people had lived cooperatively once and can do so again–not to say that that society was perfect. If he argued that the city contains a possible path to change, it was simply to identify a possibility, to make cities places of conviviality and political vitality and ecological sanity, not to guarantee the final outcome of taking the path, let alone to endorse the existing city.

A pattern emerges, as Price’s recovery operation proceeds: he shows us that Bookchin the dialectician worked in the realm between is and ought, the terrain between the sordid today and the possible tomorrow. Price’s great achievement is to explicate the ways that Bookchin charted that terrain.

For me, the subtlest and most illuminating section of his book is the one that treats the subject of ethics. Bookchin proposed that one could ground an ethical system in nature. Among social ecologists, the subject of such an “objective ethics” has been a tortured one–even some of Bookchin’s most fervent admirers have rejected this part of his work. Granted, the phrase “objective ethics” hints at all kinds of philosophical dangers and social pitfalls. But Bookchin was well aware of them, and as Price shows, he never meant to say that nature is somehow ethical in itself.

Then Price proceeds to explain, far better than anyone ever has (myself included), what Bookchin meant. Nature unfolds in a process of growing complexity and diversity. Its directionality has led to increasingly self-conscious life forms. That’s an unfolding history on which ethics can be grounded. Once again, the key to this question is potentiality: “Bookchin is not reading his ethics as a fact of nature, but solely as grounded on a potentiality, elicited by speculative thought, that can be found in natural processes.” Our place in evolution is itself an objective potentiality for the creation of an ecological society.

The problems of ethics, and of humanity’s place in nature, are ones that the environmental movement is grappling with even today. In some quarters discontent is growing with the notion that nature is radically separate from humanity, with misanthropy, and with rejections of civilization. Today’s “green modernists” (as opposed to “green traditionalists”) are recognizing that untouched wilderness doesn’t really exist, and that people are actually part of nature, part of all ecosystems. Fans of Emma Marris’s 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World are hungry for a framework that is not only pro-environment but pro-humanity and even pro-technology.

They would do well to consider Bookchin’s work, as decades ago he brought the wrath of the green movement down upon himself by asserting that human beings–with selfhood and reason–are part of the continuum nature, having evolved within it. That humanity is uniquely aware of this fact and is capable of guiding nature as a whole toward the fulfillment of its potentialities for freedom and self-consciousness. Twenty-five years ago “stewardship” was a dirty word. Perhaps now even that attitude is changing, giving a “recovered” Bookchin a new relevance.

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During the 1990s, Bookchin embroiled himself in a related conflict within the anarchist movement, criticizing this movement’s lack of a “social” component as well, and bringing down similar damage to his reputation, this time partly deserved. But then, by the mid-1990s the political reaction was grinding him down, causing the potentialities that he had so lovingly identified and watered and nurtured to wane. The terrain of potentiality, between is and ought, was looking less like a forest and more like a desert.

Meanwhile his writings were being translated into other languages, absent the smoke and debris, so outside the English-speaking world, Bookchin’s avid readers had no inkling of the ad hominem debates. The result is that today radical movements in those places have no need of a Bookchin recovery operation. For example, when I traveled to Greece, in the fall of 2008, admirers of the many Greek translations of his work asked me what was happening with Bookchin’s ideas back in the United States. I explained that his reputation was still clouded by the ad hominem nastiness of the previous years and had yet to emerge from it. They looked at me in bafflement, as if to ask (or so I imagined), why are Americans so hung up on personality? What about content?

Another example: Bookchin’s work has been much translated into Turkish, where the Kurds of southeastern Anatolia have embraced it wholeheartedly. The paralyzing ad hominem trashings are unknown to them: and as I write, they are attempting to implement social ecology, in cities and towns and villages of Hakkari and Van and Batman and Diyarbakir. More than anywhere else in the world, the Kurds are struggling to build a grassroots-democratic, ecological society, on the basis of Bookchin’s ideas.

Price’s enthusiasm for his excellent task is evident on every page. Defying the stylistic constraints of academic writing, he writes with verve and panache. In the process of recovering the work of an honest and brilliant and relevant thinker whose work was, twenty-some years ago, unjustifiably sullied, he has established himself as, hands down, the foremost living interpreter of the literary oeuvre of Murray Bookchin.