Listen Marxist: a reply - Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin replies to Jeremy Brecher's review of Post-Scarcity Anarchism.

Submitted by klas batalo on August 8, 2010

I take Jeremy Brecher to be a decent, intelligent, and honest guy whom I know personally and like very much. Hence when Jeremy comes out with a 37-page (typescript) review of my book, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, that misinterprets important aspects of the book, I must work with the assumption that he wears blinders that restrict his vision and is burdened by prejudgements that make it difficult for him to evaluate its contents. The review is one of those shot-gun blasts that scatters pellets all over the place. To pick out each pellet and examine it carefully would require a work at least five times the size of Jeremy's, which time (and I suspect, space) make prohibitive. So I shall have to content myself with a critical overall evaluation of the review and cite a few examples of Jeremy's misinterpretations.

The review in high Marxist fashion begins with an attempt to locate the "social origins" of my outlook -- the youth revolt and the counterculture of the sixties -- which for Jeremy is already pretty much of a "dead dog." "By the end of the 1960s," we are told, "the discontent remained, but much of the opportunity for experimentation vanished. Students began to knuckle down for grades and eschewed political activities that might get them thrown out of school; dropouts, no longer able to live off the scraps of a booming economy, were forced to look for work and face the problems of any other workers. The romantic exuberence and sense of possibility that marked the 1960s became a matter of history."

This shallow treatment of what is happening today among students and dropouts could easily be culled from Time and Life articles on the demise of the sixties. I would hate to explode Jeremy's illusions, but the majority of students even in the sixties were always looking for good grades and "eschewed political activity that might get them thrown out of school." As to the radical minority of students who fomented most of the activity on the campuses, the "romantic exuberence and sense of possibility" they created was built on a suicidal, arrogant polarization politics that, in turn, was based on the myth that the "revolution" was a year or two away. That the majority of students did not fall for this political insanity is much to their credit. That many radical students have now returned to school to do some serious thinking about the role of campuses, education, and theory generally after a career of guilting students with the sickening insult that "students are shit" is also creditable. What the seventies have learned from the "radical" politics of the sixties is that the revolution is not around the corner with each trashing of an ROTC building and that some serious theory had better be learned -- whether on campuses or off them -- to deal with the decades-long development that lies ahead. What should be regarded as a very important aspect of a larger development, one which opens new potentialities for the future, is treated by Jeremy as the demise of a period and development he never understood in the first place.

As to dropout youth, I would remind Jeremy that the counterculture as a whole has been a much more complex development than he cares to think. Having lived it to a large extent, I can remember when it survived during the mid-sixties on a diet of candy bars (literally!) in two small urban enclaves (N.Y.'s Lower Eastside and San Francisco's Haight district), when it shared a rabidly anti-technological outlook, and when it lived in an ambience of apolitical adolescent irresponsibility. Since them, I've seen it spread all over the country, graduate from candy bars to organic foods and farming, turn from political indifference to almost impatient political action, replace its anti-technological attitude by a serious ecotechnological one, learn skills that would have amazed its middle-class progenitors, increasingly acquire a new sense of responsibility, maturity, and self-respect, and most importantly, raise problems of subjective relationships that far and away overshadow the anemic, economistic "class consciousness" fostered by the Marxian sects with such notable lack of success for over a half century among the proletariat. For once, these dropouts have posed the problems of self-management and self-activity so intrinsic to a communist consciousness not merely as issues of "management" and "activity" but of the new self that could make management and activity existentially and humanly meaningful. I have emphasized repeatedly that the forging of this new self that will be capable of self-management and self-activity occurs very unevenly and cannot be fully actualized under conditions of unfreedom. But to struggle for the development of this new self, and to attempt to raise the subjective issues it must deal with, are vitally important even in advance of the communist revolution we all seek -- or else the revolution will never be a communist one. In raising the issues of a new self and in struggling to actualize it, the counterculture stands head and shoulders over the arid sects of the Marxian "left" whose "class consciousness" has never left the factory domain at best or the ballot box at worst. And I deeply resent their denunciatory attitude toward a development that they never anticipated, that they preyed on like vultures to fill the ranks of their demonstrations and cadres, and on whose presumed "grave" they now gleefully dance.

I'm not much concerned with whether Post-Scarcity Anarchism is a "product" or a dialectical superimposition "on a number of themes that were ‘in the air’ during the 1960s" (as Jeremy puts it) or an anticipation of many of the counterculture's essential elements. I would simply remind Jeremy that I was writing on ecology, post-scarcity, and utopian problems of social reconstruction and decentralization in the early 1950s in Contemporary Issues, long before such "themes" were taken up by Galbraith, Reich, and Carson. The publication of my book, Our Synthetic Environment, which already deals with all the issues raised by "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought" precedes Silent Spring by half a year. What seriously concerns me is the fact that the student movement and the counterculture of the sixties fell on the Marxist sects (including the Council Communists) like a ton of bricks and left them completely bewildered. Root and Branch has not been around long enough for me to assess the degree to which it shares in the poverty of this attitude. But I feel it shares the economistic bias of most Marxian groups and what I have to say applies at least partly to it as to other Marxian groups.

The Marxists of the early sixties never expected white middle-class suburban kids, "overgorged" by "affluence," to do precisely what they had predicted workers would do owing to "immiseration" and "pauperization." And I'll be damned if they know what to do with it yet, all their re-interpretations of Marx's theory of alienation notwithstanding. Saddled with a perspective that was hot news in 1848, they were "prepared" for a growing unemployed reserve army, for the "relative" pauperization of the proletariat, for a "chronic economic crisis" (as we called it in the thirties), for an increasingly politicized and revolutionary proletariat, all of which was to culminate in a proletarian revolution. This is no mere "vulgarization" of Marxism; it formed the foundations of proletarian socialism, an epochal perspective that cannot be erased with incidental quotations from Marx's "early" or "middle" writings. With the sixties, the Marxists found not factory workers but rather moderately well-to-do "privileged" kids moving into rebellion on a wide cultural, humanistic, and even personalistic front against all aspects of the established system -- not merely against class society but hierarchical society; not merely against economic exploitation, but domination in every form; not merely for happiness but for pleasure; not merely for "social justice" but for freedom on a multidimensional scale (women's liberation, sexual liberation, children's liberation, control from below in every phase of life, communal living, mutual aid, counterinstitutions to the existing ones, etc., as well as economic and social liberation.) Where Marxism had led its disciples to expect a social upheaval to stem primarily from the struggle of wage labor against capital motivated by the material immiseration of the proletariat, they found themselves face-to-face with a rebellious movement of "petty bourgeois" youth who had tasted of the "American Dream" and rejected it as odious. The truth must be stated: every Marxist group, to my knowledge, alternately castigated this movement, downgraded it with Olympian arrogance, later parasitized and divided it, and now is trying to bury it. First, the movement was condemned as "petty bourgeois hedonosm" or "middle-class escapism." When it began to get serious, it was arrogantly described as a "children's crusade" (to use Marcuse's memorable words). As it grew even more serious, it was characterized as "co-optable." At every point in its complex development, the movement was taken by Marxists for what it was at the given time and either condemned or shrugged off. But as "flower power" gave way to "student power," as "student power" gave way to "control over the streets," and as immense street demonstrations and campus uprisings began to shout "power to the people" and raise clenched fists, our beloved Marxists began to search into the sacred texts -- to the "early writings" and "middle writings" of the Holy One -- to ferret out a formula that would explain how it all happened. Today we are in the Grundrisse stage; yesterday, it was the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts; and if I read Jeremy's views accurately, tomorrow it will be the Capital stage.

Well, it's turning into a deathly bore. And with the latest developments in "praxis Marxism," into academic scholasticism -- as the current Gramsci and Lukacs craze seems to indicate. The real issue between Jeremy and myself is that, in my view, none of these neo-Marxian or orthodox Marxian stages suffices -- that we must transcend Marxism itself in Hegel's sense of aufhebung. This means that we must incorporate the best of Marx (as we have the best of Hegel and others) -- and go further. My Post-Scarcity Anarchism makes a stab in this direction. People who are interested in following the same direction would do well to read the book itself without Jeremy's blinders. And I would ask that they read not only Post-Scarcity Anarchism but my essay "On Organization and Spontaneity" which appears in the current issue of Anarchos and my "Toward a Philosophy of Spirit" in a forthcoming issue of Telos.

For the rest, my dispute with Jeremy's review boils down to a host of logistical and administrative problems -- incredibly, as though these problems could be discussed merely as matters of "management" without dealing with the changed self that must be hyphenated by the term. Accordingly, Jeremy gets involved in the preposterous problem of who would dump the garbage in Troy that people in Perth Amboy will drink. I would have expected this kind of "problem" from the laissez-faire "anarchists" of the Murray Rothbard school, but hardly from a Council Communist who professes to carry on the Organizationsgeists tradition of Anton Pannekoek.

I will not get into this kind of nonsense. Considering the level of this order of criticism, Jeremy will have to deal in his own mind with whether he has merely assimilated a structure from Pannekoek (i.e. a mechanism called "workers councils" which, if my memory serves me well, Pannekoek never regarded as the permanent form of a communist society) or the problem of geistige relations (which, in my view, represents Pannekoek's noblest contribution to communist theory.) It is the discussion of the latter problem -- of communist subjectivity and relations -- that I find so notably absent in Jeremy's review. And until this problem is seriously taken up in the full recognition that Pannekoek was one of the earliest Marxists to open it in the dismal history of European socialism, Jeremy and I are simply talking away from each other.

As to the details of Jeremy's review, I'd like to bring into question the polemical methods that seem to guide it. Jeremy is obviously out to establish that, as a "product" of the counterculture, I am a crypto-"naturalist," who would prefer to a lost Golden Age of isolated, self-sufficient autarchical communities. Only from this perspective can I explain the outright distortion in Jeremy's presentation of my views. He unerringly fails to note that when I speak of a "self-sufficient community" in "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought" (p. 80), I precede it with the adjective "relatively." Obviously, I mean more than autarchy when I use the adjective, but Jeremy is out to nail me as an "autarchist." Having committed this distortion, Jeremy proceeds to compound it by viewing my thesis in support of regional integration as something I "concede." You see, it is not that I believe in regional integration, but rather that I "concede" it is necessary. I must, alas, abide with it. Unless the reader goes beyond Jeremy's rather shady account, here, and reads Post-Scarcity Anarchism, she or he would never know that for several pages of my essay on "Toward a Liberatory Technology" I argue for regional integration and the need to interlink resources between ecocommunities. Jeremy's entire treatment of this area of discussion is tinged by a certain intellectual dishonesty. But Jeremy doesn't know when to stop. Having turned an argument for integration into a mere "concession," he proceeds still further to compound his distortion by inverting my very view of the relationship between work and technology to the point of utter absurdity. "Bookchin," he declares with a grand flourish, "takes his final dive into science fiction when he envisions ‘humans of the future’ who simply forget about technology and ‘stand at the end of cybernated assembly line with baskets to cart the goods home." (p. 133)

Now, this could be called the art of "selective quoting" that verges on lying in one's teeth. The reader of Post-Scarcity Anarchism who consults pp. 133-35 will find that "Bookchin," in fact, regards such a notion -- so popular in many circles when the essay was written -- is exactly what must be avoided, quite aside from whether it is possible or not, if the "fracture separating man from machine" is to be healed. "Bookchin" is arguing against the very mentality that yields this sort of "science fiction." Indeed, in the ensuing page "Bookchin" proceeds to argue as forcefully as he can that a balanced relationship must be established between work and the machine, and the machine must be assimilated to artistic craftsmanship.

Frankly, what am I to make of this kind of "misreading"? I don&39t want to think that Jeremy is a liar or a distorter -- merely, that he reads what he wants to believe. This mode of "reading," in effect, is a mode of thinking. Were I to critically examine Jeremy's review line by line, I could demonstrate that far from overstating the possibilities at hand -- technologically, culturally, and socially -- I have understated them. The amount of material I have amassed on ecotechnologies alone since "Toward a Liberatory Technology" was written would boggle Jeremy's rather limited imagination. The fact is that Jeremy is singularly conservative -- and this conservatism permeates his entire review. He takes things as they are -- from the relations of Troy and Perth Amboy to the national division of labor -- and merely adds a different structure ("workers councils") to the established order of things. He sees no significant change in the self that is to achieve this different structure of self-management nor does he see any changes that people will make in their needs as they change themselves and society. Jeremy, in short, reasons like a bourgeois sociologist who has bought communism as a good ideological product but never assimilated it dialectically or permitted it to change his outlook toward life.

One could go on indefinitely unraveling the skein of hodgepodge criticism that Jeremy inflicts on Post-Scarcity Anarchism. I will not enter into Jeremy's attempt to dissolve ecological microenvironments into "worldwide" macroenvironments (surely Jeremy must know something about the ecosystem concept in ecology which stresses the need for a recognition of local uniqueness), nor will I deal with his silly analogy for the fascinating projections Jacob Rosin presents for molecular industrial chemistry. In my opinion, Jeremy just doesn't know what he is talking about. His observations on classical Athens and the work "citizen" are also silly. I would have hoped that Jeremy understood the whole thrust of my argument: namely, that Athens must be understood not merely in terms of its social limitations (limitations which I would hope we all understood) but as a polis whose attainments were all the more remarkable inspite of its limitations. Jeremy's attempt to link my attitude toward the working class with that of the "end of ideology" people and Tom Hayden is as crude as the Lower East Side "revolutionary" scenario he seems to impute to me. As a person who has spent ten years in heavy industry as a shop steward and union activist, I don't need a sermon about my "moral contempt" for the proletariat. Having acquired my knowledge of the proletariat from shops rather than university libraries, I know workers to be neither inferior nor superior to any other dominated section of the population. In addressing myself to the dubious "privileges" of the middle classes, I was not trying to say that they were more oppressed than workers but that both classes were now being oppressed in new ways and in a new social context.

Another point is worth clarifying. My pamphlet "Listen, Marxist!" (of which some 40,000 copies have been published in separate printings and in anthologies) was the first sixties work that, to my knowledge, posed and predicted the changes that would occur in young workers' attitudes toward the work ethic and hierarchy. I did not suck this viewpoint from my thumb. It came from a personal knowledge of traditional working class attitudes toward work and hierarchy, and from a knowledge of the impact that the counterculture was having on present-day working class youth. Now that this prediction is being harvested in real life, I find it rather amusing that this view is being ripped off (without acknowledgement, of course) by many Marxists as evidence of an "upsurge" by "new" working class "types." I would be quite disturbed, however, to find that this viewpoint is used to re-establish the archaic cult of ouvrierisme and to vitiate the impact of the counterculture as a social force. There are signs that this is occurring. Let me make it clear, however, that I am not leveling this accusation against Jeremy; in fact, I wish I could. For Jeremy there seems to be no problem about the proletariat's psyche inasmuch as the issue hardly exists for him. Apparently, little has changed among workers since the 1860s, when Marx wrote Capital -- merely that they have become more or less "class conscious" during different periods of history.

As to Marx's writings on the Paris Commune as evidence of his attitude toward a "proletarian dictatorship," the less said, the better. It is a notorious fact that Marx's Civil War in France, from which Marxists cull the most libertarian conceptions of the "proletarian dictatorship," was a "theoretical lapse" (shall we say an "anarchist deviation"?) which he "rectified" with very snide remarks about the Commune and the Communards in the last years of his life. (For a comprehensive discussion of this "theoretical lapse," see Ron Suny's The Baku Commune, which I think was published by Princeton University Press a year or two ago.) Marx's comments on the state in the Critique of the Gotha Program are much too spotty to be taken as definitive statements of his views. For reasons I explain in "Listen, Marxist!" Marx was essentially a centralist and more often than not modeled his views of a post-revolutionary period on the Jacobin dictatorship -- that is, in moments when he did not concede that socialism in England and America (Engels later added France and might just as well have added Germany) could be introduced by parliamentary means. The truth is that Marx's views were guided by the "opportunity" at hand: preferably a Jacobin-type dictatorship in his more revolutionary moments, a Commune-type "state" between 1871-75, and when he conceived it possible, a socialist republic led by a workers' party and based on a nationalized economy.

But all of this is secondary to what concerns me even more deeply -- the mentality that permeates Jeremy's review. Marx, owing to his attempt to produce a "scientific" socialism, at once devalued and denatured the libertarian and imaginative elements of early European socialism. Martin Buber discusses this regressive development with considerable insight and sensitivity in his Paths in Utopia. But at least Marx and Engels retained the high tradition of Hegelian thought and the French utopists in their vision of communism. One can still find in Engels' Anti-Duhring, for all its shortcomings, the concept of the rounded individual in a rounded society, based on decentralized communities and on a transcendence of the contradiction between town and country, mental and physical work, and humanity and nature. Engels does not accept urban life, the national division of labor, and the industrial structure as it is. He radically challenges the entire ensemble -- not, like Jeremy, offers cutsy modifications that will "improve" things once workers' councils take over. Engels retains the love of the polis-type society that so profoundly influenced Hegel and German classical philosophy. One senses in Anti-Duhring the influence of the best in Hellenism and Fourierism, the desire for a new sensibility and for new geistige relations between human beings.

In the years following the death of Marx and Engels, we have seen the emergence of a new type of "Marxist": one whose outlook is operational rather than speculative, sociological (and "socialist") rather than communist, structural rather than dialectical, intellectually colorless rather than imaginative. I'm sorry to say that the thinking of this type of "Marxist" is typified by Jeremy's review. Perhaps the kindest name I can give it is "assembly-line socialism." Jeremy, to tell the truth, writes like a social engineer. He is basically concerned not with self-management but with "management," and workers councils happen to be the most democratic way of "administering" the what-is. He raises virtually every mediocre argument that one could expect from a street heckler or a bourgeois sociologist -- and the two are merely the opposite sides of the same "commonsensical" coin. Who will clean up the garbage? Who will do the dirty work? Won't "self-sufficient communities" behave like parochial small towns in Indiana? Won't people be greedy? How will the majority be prevented from oppressing the minority. Won't Peoria try to oppress Oshkosh by withholding materials from it -- or whatever ad nauseum? It matters little that Jeremy raises all of these questions as such, but this is the way he thinks.

I find this mentality all the more disquieting when it appears in a comrade and a friend who is likely to invoke the name of Anton Pannekoek as a teacher. It is only recently in an article by Russell Jacoby (see Telos No. 10, Winter 1971) that I learned how earnestly Pannekoek had occupied himself as far back as 1912 with the geistige nature of the proletariat and its organizations -- how he attempted to uproot bourgeois subjectivity not only from the socialist movement but from the working class as a whole. As one who feels closer to the Council Communists than any other organized group in the Marxist movement, I would even more earnestly ask them to explore the emergence of the geistige issue as it appears today -- to advance the work which Pannekoek began into their own era, not to denature it with an economistic sensibility. We have had enough of this sensibility in the dismal seventy years that have poisoned European socialism and led to so many tragic defeats. The work Geist (Spirit) is a good one. As a comrade and friend, I would hope that it is taken seriously by the Root and Branch people with due respect to the memory of Pannekoek as well as to the issues he raised.

Root & Branch No. 4 (1973), pp. 23-29