In Praise of Sensitive Reason: Dialectical Naturalism as a Critical Weapon


By Renaud Garcia

Renowned as the founder of Social Ecology, an uncompromising public speaker and activist as well as a social anarchist of great importance, Murray Bookchin was also an accomplished philosopher, although a self-taught one. It is that latter dimension of his work which I would like to explore in this paper, since it delivers many keys to fully grasp the contemporary relevance of his main legacy, i.e. the Social Ecology project. Set in a case, a copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind accompanied Bookchin most of the time. This is not a minor biographical detail. A relentless reader, the factory worker made up a solid philosophical background, absorbing the most difficult texts and theories in order to devise his own world view, encapsulated at best in his 1982 Ecology of Freedom (though many works of importance were to follow this magnum opus).

Among the many sources of his thought, the hegelian notion of a processual reality stands undoubtedly in the foreground. If one doesn’t trace Bookchin’s thought back to its hegelian roots, one is lacking the crucial tool, i.e dialectic, providing for an explanation of the way second nature (that is, the social and cultural world of humans) is derived from first nature (that is, nature itself as ecosphere but also our evolutionary legacy). Conversely, assuming that dialectical thinking lies at the core of social ecology could allow us to tell what is specifically relevant in Bookchin’s work in order to set an anarchist statement for the 21th century.

In my opinion, three topics of interest may be linked to such a philosophical ground. All three can be seen as sources of further controversies and debates (which is one of the most appealing features of Bookchin’s work).

Firstly, as it is grounded on dialectical thinking, Social Ecology introduces a subtle approach of life-forms and human societies to evolution standing equally aloof from Deep Ecology and what we will call environmentalism. This is a very helpful way to conceive of renewed relations between human beings and nature, without giving up in any case the need of a sharp criticism of market economy and the spectacular reign of commodities.

Secondly, if we oppose, in Noam Chomsky between human Power and Prospects (1996), short-term goals and long-term visions, then Social Ecology embodies such a vision of a desirable society which can polarize our efforts here and now, leaving open unpredictable historical outcomes. This is where we are confronted with the usual indictment of utopian blueprints. Within radical circles, the so-called post-anarchism expresses at best such a dismissal of all kind of utopian vision. Methinks it’s a key challenge for contemporary social criticism, which Bookchin’s work helps to take up confidently, because many post-anarchist assumptions can be debunked if one takes the time to fully examine the conceptual basis of dialectical naturalism.

This leads to the third topic of interest, which sets Bookchin as an untimely thinker for the twenty-first century: the connection between his naturalism and the legacy of the Enlightenment. Usually deemed by many radicals (among neo-luddites or primitivist circles) as a matrix of ecological disasters and crude rationalism serviceable to all the powers-that-be, the Enlightenment corpus is itself dialectically tackled by Bookchin. The naturalistic outlook of French philosophers (such as Denis Diderot) as well as the antiauthoritarian thrust of the encyclopedic project are actually highly praised by Bookchin, who nevertheless firmly sets the limits of conventional reason, criticized for its coldness when applied outside its province. The praise for sensitive reason (another name for the dialectical thinking) is still of great relevance today if we are to tackle successfully the two-sided crisis we are now confronted with —the crisis of societies based on capitalistic growth and the ecological crisis. Let us examine those three topics successively.

Neither Deep Ecology nor Environmentalism

There are numerous ways an activist politically raised under Communist movement’s youth organizations could have used the marxian —then Hegelian— modes of thought. The most obvious way, which turned to be the plague of orthodox Marxism throughout the twentieth century, was to endorse the stage theory of history put forward by the materialist conception of history. This conception relies on a teleological pattern, conceiving historical development as the advance of reason. It comes back to Hegel’s popular works, based on lectures, such as Reason in History. Undoubtedly, Bookchin retained some of this broad Hegelian outlook when he tackled the issue of liberatory technology in his 1960s essays.

Some acute observers, like the Spanish Luddite writer, José Ardillo, argue that this Hegelian frame is the main flaw in Bookchin’s critical theory. According to Ardillo, Bookchin has never been able to definitely step out of the Hegelian Marxist iron cage, i.e the teleological notion of history advancing through stages (Ardillo, 2018). This is why, as regards technology, he generally sought to deepen the inner contradictions of capitalism, relying on complex technology as the material basis for a post-scarcity society, once geared to spare toil and give way to meaningful activities. Even if such a depiction of Bookchin’s seminal essays in the 1960s is quite harsh and unbalanced, considering that he never stopped correcting his initially optimistic views on technology, it nevertheless points out what part of the Hegelian legacy would be totally irrelevant nowadays, as when one turns to intricate technology to solve the very problems (economic and ecological) it caused.

Yet, I don’t think this is the major Hegelian influence on Bookchin’s work. Actually, dialectical thinking as opposed to conventional reason is the other set of Hegel’s teachings which inform Social Ecology theory, entailing a revised logic and notion of reality itself. In the dialectical view, every being is seen as an implicit potentiality coming into existence, passing into changes yet “remaining one and the same,” in Hegel’s own words. For instance, with a germ something is at the same time brought forth (this is not nothing) and yet hidden, ideally contained within itself as long as it is not developed. Therefore the germ’s projection into existence is fueled by an inner contradiction in it—the fully actualized plant exists only implicitly but is impelled toward development. Hence, when Bookchin takes on this immanent logic of process, he emphasizes the following points: Dialectic explains development and not only change; it explains mediation and not only process; it accounts for derivation and not only motion. This is why the dialectical outlook is pivotal if one wishes to understand how the social reality is derived —and not merely mechanically caused— from first nature.

As Bookchin puts it in his 1987 article, “Thinking ecologically: a Dialectical Approach,” “dialectic explains, with a power beyond that of any conventional logic, how the organic flow of first into second nature is a reworking of biological into social reality. Each phase or moment, pressed by its own internal logic into an antithetical and ultimately a more transcendent form, emerges as a more complex unity-in-diversity that encompasses its earlier moments even as it goes beyond them”. The unique ambition of Social Ecology lies in the assumption of such logical premises, built into a projective body of concepts instead of retrospective, which is the case of Hegel’s philosophy of history.

Therefore, dialectical speculation is not a mere review of what is. On the contrary, it is creative in that it ceaselessly contrasts the free, rational and moral actuality of what could be (which inheres in nature’s thrust toward self-reflexivity) with the existential reality of what is. When, in a Hegelian fashion, one is asked whether or not the reality he faces is a complete expression of potentialities for freedom and creativity, such a question provides for a critical assessment of what is in the light of what could be. In other words —those of the German philosopher himself— is social reality, wirklich, i.e. actualized, fully unfolded, or is it stuck in an inadequate form, left unfulfilled? And if so, what are the social, economic or cultural forces that hinder and distort the realization of such potentialities? Moreover, once duly analyzed, how can one overthrow those forces and replace them by new social institutions? Answering those questions is the proper task of dialectical reason as opposed to conventional reason.

As Bookchin summed it up in the introduction to the Philosophy of Social Ecology, “a process that follows its immanent self-development to its logical actuality is more properly ‘real’ than a given ‘what is’ that is aborted or distorted and hence, in Hegelian terms, ‘untrue’ to its possibilities” (Bookchin, 1990; 26). That’s why reason must “explore the potentialities that are latent in any social development and educe its authentic actualization, its fulfillment and ‘truth’ through a new and more rational social dispensation.”

Consequently, thinking dialectically inclines us to point out the specific causes of social pathologies, often multi-dimensional, instead of deploring the flaws that afflict humanity at large. This is where Social Ecology stands at odds with Deep Ecology, castigated by Bookchin for its biocentrism, as expressed in the Deep Ecology platform written in 1984 by George Sessions and Arne Næss. The first point of the platform states that “the well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves.” (Næss & Sessions, 1984). In other words, all organisms and entities as part of an interrelated whole are deemed equal in intrinsic worth.

According to Bookchin, here lies the inconsistency of the biocentric approach. Indeed, we cannot at the same time consider ourselves equal in intrinsic worth to other organisms and entities in the ecosphere, and actually behave like “plain citizens of the biotic community” highly concerned with the blossoming of other life-forms (as recommended by George Sessions and Bill Devall in their 1985 book Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature mattered). If we are to play such a role, which French geographer and anarchist Elisée Reclus captured under the formula “nature rendered self-conscious,” we must assume a kind of human superiority over other species, a word that doesn’t necessarily refers to an authoritarian concept, but rather points to the excellence of a life-form able to think abstractly and make rich generalizations. Thus, it would be misleading to curse humanity’s distinctive features at large, regardless of class interests, gender issues, spatial organization, all criteria that show that some humans destroy life-forms and pollute the ecosphere more than others because they manage the forces of the growth economy (for instance, an urban member of the creative class flying from airport to airport, compared to a worker living in the country dependent on car in order to meet his daily obligations). In order to produce such a subtle analysis, we need a detailed account of the origins of social irrationalities, and this is what dialectic provides for, whereas Deep Ecology undermine this explanatory effort when it denounces human activities as broadly parasitic.

To be sure, Bookchin could be pretty unfair towards Deep Ecology, jettisoning very interesting aspects of it, such as Arne Næss’s phenomenological description of what it is like to inhabit the world. Actually, the notion of “concrete contents,” analyzed by the Norwegian philosopher, which explores the manifold of comprehensive wholes that make up the sensitive texture of reality, is a valuable contribution to ecological thinking and sensibility (Næss, 1985). It assumes that man is always primarily a “being in the world” rather than a perceiving subject reconstructing nature as a remote object. On a practical level, it lets us understand why so many people throughout the world launch into the stubborn defense of the territory where they live, be it a forest, a bocage, a valley or a river, because they consider it an essential part of them, instead of a mere environment. Many struggles summed up by the French catchword zones à défendre (ZAD) could be related to such an ecological sensibility, pertinently expressed in some of Næss’s works (and others). It’s quite a pity Bookchin overlooked such contributions.

Nevertheless, Deep Ecologists largely paid him back for it, as when Edward Abbey depicted in Hayduke Lives! (1987), the ridiculously grumpy and sectarian character of “Bernie Mushkin,” grumbling in a microphone, irreparably lost in the middle of an Earth First! meeting. Well, this is part of the game and, at any rate, is it not what distinguishes Social Ecology as a fruitfull nexus of controversies? This is not an insignificant legacy when compared to the dullness of environmentalism, targeted as relentlessly as biocentrism in Bookchin’s works.

The main problem with environmentalism is the way that it depoliticizes the debate over ecology, fostering instead the power of experts or gurus, either devising technical solutions for technical problems or promoting a spiritual retreat into selfhood.

According to the Open Letter to the Ecological Movement, environmentalism seeks to facilitate . . . domination by developing techniques for diminishing the hazards caused by domination” (Bookchin, 1980: 77). Within environmentalist discourses, a technical emphasis on “alternative” power sources, designs for “conserving” energy, “simple” lifestyles in the name of “limits of growth,” ends up representing an enormous growth industry in its own right. Put bluntly, we are faced with a mere greening of capitalism, unleashing without any dialectical sense new devices for domination (all the more harmful as they wear the mask of healing forces).

In a nutshell, equally at odds with Deep Ecology and environmentalism, the dialectical naturalism promoted by Bookchin consists of critical qualities that are crucial to face the contemporary ecological crisis. Its main value lies in the ability one is given to identify the point where nature’s objective tendencies towards creativity and mutual aid remain unfulfilled, and are submitted to severe social, economic and political constraints. Thus, in search for a better social organization, the dialectical thinking expresses its utopian thrust. This is another precious legacy from Bookchin, that has to be discussed now.

Against Post-Anarchism: Keeping Practical Utopia Alive

Basically, there are two different meanings for the word, “utopia.” In a negative sense, it refers to forms of social organization or behaviour definitely out of reach for humanity as we know it. But, in a positive sense, it refers to the pursuit of heartening political visions, instead of the passive acceptance of a social order that squanders human potentialities. Thinking dialectically entails utopia in that very positive sense, as it systematically compares what is with what should be. Hence, Social Ecology proves to be intrinsically utopian in that it works like a guiding force for all those who seek concrete pathways out of present capitalist institutions. It unfolds into many concrete directions, from geographic reorganization (balance between the city and the country, reflection on small-scale technologies, assessment of the optimal size of political units related on a confederalist basis) to political education (restore the lost art of controversy on public face-to-face assemblies, remake a meaningful citizenry) by way of resistance to a grow-or-die economic system along with the development of a visionary ethical ideal, bringing about new inspirational values instead of the spiritual emptiness produced by a commoditized world.

Then, what is the matter with the utopian core of Social Ecology? We can put it as follows: Some observers of new social movements would be prone to claim that anarchism and other currents concerned with social transformation cannot stick to any utopian vision anymore, because such an attitude proved disastrous along the twentieth century (thinking about communism in Russia gives enough evidences of that). Hence, the “new anarchists” would adopt the way of thinking put forward by Uri Gordon when he chooses to introduce the transformations of antiauthoritarian politics “from practice to theory” (Gordon, 2008). Conversely, those who cling to blueprints of a future society, thereby hoping to help plant the seeds of the future in the present, may go astray and forget the proper anarchic element in politics. They could be called “capital A anarchists,” to use the term coined by Grubacic and Graeber (2004). Of course, Bookchin would be one of them if we follow the postanarchist discussion of his views on social transformation.

One has to recall here that postanarchism is essentially an academic endeavor to reload classical anarchism in the light of poststructural theories (notably those of French philosophers like Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, or Rancière), taking into account the numerous theoretical flaws which are said to affect the works of Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Malatesta (all of them supposedly caught in a narrow rationalism, often scientistic and blindly progressive, conceiving emancipation as the expression of the better part of a fixed human nature, once gotten rid of power). Specifically, the main feature of Social Ecology which does not suit postanarchists’ outlook is its foundation on a dialectical naturalism, behind which they suspect the idea of a naturally determined order. However dynamic and open to novelty this dialectical approach may be (as seen above), postanarchism always tends to dismiss it. According to Rancière (one of the great references of postanarchist academics), Social Ecology is seen merely as a “police,” i.e. a rational and objective totality kept in order which is the exact opposite to politics, i.e. a moment of rupture, displacement and destabilization of the parts ordinarily assigned to the people.

Discussing Bookchin’s dialectical bias, which he seems to equate with a scientistic tendency, postanarchist thinker, Saul Newman, concludes this way: “Because Bookchin’s politics of Social Ecology is absolutized and made certain through the dialectic and through a rational, organic objectivity, it effects a closure of politics.” (Newman, 2011: 153) What an indictment of utopian blueprints, as if one envisioning a better social order in a pretty detailed way had to become necessarily the future warden of revolutionary expectations! Todd May, another leading spokesman for postanarchism does not hesitate to phrase the same idea in a similar way: “For the poststructuralists, there is a Stalin waiting behind every general political theory; either you conform to the concepts on which it relies, or else you must be changed or eliminated in favour of those concepts. Foundationalism in political theory is, in short, inseparable from representation. (May, 2011: 42)

Such an account of Social Ecology’s utopian thrust turns out to be highly problematic, as it relies on a conceptual confusion which expels history from the picture, even though postanarchists continuously call to the lessons of the practice. Let us rephrase their argument—if one assumes, as dialectical naturalism does, that when human beings try to build a nonhierarchical social organization (as exemplified in libertarian municipalism institutions), they achieve concretely the latent potentialities of nature itself, then one gets trapped in a teleological view of social transformation, which thwarts authentic political experimentation. This is problematic in that it mistakes dialectical unfolding for teleology, namely non-historical predetermination.

In a 1994 text called “History, Civilization and Progress,” written nearly at the same time as his vituperating criticism of postmodern tendencies within anarchism, in the controversial “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm” (1995), Bookchin carefully told the difference between historical development (which fosters the emergence of the new) and teleological determination (which hinders it). When carried by a social movement’s endeavors in developing potentialities for freedom and cooperation, history may constitute itself as an “ever-developing whole.” But this whole, Bookchin adds, “must be distinguished from a terminal Hegelian ‘Absolute,’ just as demands for coherence in a body of views must be distinguished from the worship of such an Absolute and just as the capacity of speculative reason to educe in a dialectically logical manner the very real potentialities of humanity for freedom is neither teleological nor absolutist, much less totalitarian.” (Bookchin; 1994, 1995: 157-79).

Once again, what the dialectical approach provides for is an objective criterion to judge a degree of social accomplishment, relying on the basic assumption that human beings have constructive and creative impulses which, if correctly driven by social contexts, can lead them to a better life than mere possessive impulses. This is basically the fundamental principle of Kropotkin’s work on mutual aid, in the wake of whom Bookchin places himself. Hence, because capitalist institutions—what is—encourage possessiveness, competition and fear, they must be resisted and dismantled in the light of institutions that strengthen the social and sharing side of human nature. Those latter institutions stand for what should be and offer a heartening ideal to all those committed with social change. To be sure, such an approach may sound a bit too Aristotelian to postanarchist ears, as it stands in sharp contrast with postmodern subjectivism and relativism.

One could be reminded here of the concept of ‘natural goodness,’ coined by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 2001. In short, as well as we are entitled to judge defective a wolf which fails to carry out characteristic activities like hunting and living in pack, we could judge a defective human being who does not fulfill his potentialities as a member of a particular species. One could expect from any other human being some ethical and social commitments which shape an excellence of character, this latter functioning as a norm allowing to claim that some individuals (and by extension some communities organized in this or that fashion) embody human accomplishment while others notoriously waste our possibilities as a species. In this respect, the classical thinker of liberalism John Stuart Mill, who was not prone to claim that ordinary people should conform to a theoretical political model made up by some visionaries, nevertheless spelled a major catchphrase for all those who defend objective ethics. In Utilitarianism, he penned that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” This is not to say that we should directly intervene and alter the profound temper and character of the person who indulges in the piggy lifestyle. From a liberal viewpoint, this would amount to harm that person, which is totally unethical. Nevertheless, this objective assessment of the value of lifestyles, which seemed self-evident at Mill’s time, lets us know that common sense (shared among a community and possibly beyond) always differentiates satisfying and decent ways of life from humiliating ones. Hence, the possibility to foster social contexts encouraging the former and restraining the latter.

Therefore, when relying on his dialectical approach, Bookchin advocates for Social Ecology as a matrix for institutions renewing our relations to nature and to ourselves, he clearly puts forward a social, economic, and ecological ideal which objectively questions the very way we envision ourselves. This is, primarily, what is at stake when it comes to deciding whether or not it is reasonable to fight against capitalist institutions and suggesting something else. As he puts it in “Market economy or moral economy,” we need to differentiate ideals that “advance no further than mere survival, with all its narrow technocratic and economistic implications” from ideals that “rise to the level of life, with its broad ecological and ethical implications.” (Bookchin, 1986: 97). For lack of such a standard of critical thought, relying on a strong sense of practical utopia, we may fall back on the postanarchist insurrectionary terrain, where we are left with a Foucauldian tactics—relentlessly attacking and displacing a web of power norms which, like a hydra, always reappear under new guises, from heteronormativity to speciesism, by the way of ageism, cultural (mis)appropriation and so on, in short, the postmodern agenda against which Bookchin ceaselessly vituperated, as an untimely heir of the Enlightenment in an age of triumphant relativism.

The Enlightenment as a Janus-faced legacy HEREHERE

As a Hegelian and a social anarchist, Bookchin is undoubtedly an heir of the Enlightenment. This is a coherent genealogy, which classical anarchism itself rightly claimed. In Rudolf Rocker’s words, “in modern anarchism we have the confluence of the two great currents which during and since the French Revolution have found such characteristic expression in the intellectual life of Europe: Socialism and Liberalism.” (Rocker, 1989:21). Yet, this is a problematic genealogy when seen from the ecological disasters which now surround us, in an age both fascinated by and anguished over the possibility of a total collapse. The Enlightenment philosophers are often said to have planted the seed of capitalism as a global system, limitlessly expanding across the planet in the name of Progress, technological advance and liberation from all archaic community pressures.

Since it is quite difficult to specify a single and fixed philosophy of the Enlightenment, as there are so many countries involved (France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, and specifically, Scotland) and numerous tendencies and currents (for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of The Social Contract, may be as well the very embodiment of the Enlightenment as its major opponent in the luxury controversy, during the course of which he wrote an indictment on progress against Voltaire’s liberal views), let us quote from a pivotal thinker, the encyclopedia general director, Denis Diderot (in an article itself called encyclopedie): “Man is the sole point from which to begin, and to which all must be brought back, if we are to please, engage, and affect the reader even in the most arid considerations and driest details. Aside from my existence and the happiness of my peers, what does the rest of nature matter?”

Such an acosmism is, indeed, quite a bulky legacy for all those who would like to set an ecological criticism of our time while remaining fair to the most liberating sides of the Enlightenment. But this is precisely the challenge Bookchin tackles, contrasting the dialectical side of reason with what he calls its ‘conventional’ side, in other words its analytical and reductionist tendency which implies the negation of nature as a web of ever-changing life forms. Under such a conventional reason, all phenomenon is approached as a fixed entity, independent from others and linked to them only by means of efficient cause. Its basic premise is the principle of A equals A, a useful tool in order to identify an entity, describe its components and pattern it on a conceptual framework. In Hegel’s vocabulary, this is the moment of the understanding, the intellect qua fixing, isolating and analyzing. A priceless tool for investigation in physics, the understanding rationality falls short of its explanatory virtue when applied outside its province, namely when applied to biological development and human social reality. Here it spreads its identifying and classifying mode of thought, with its unavoidable spawn—reduction of every living entity to a conceptual sample, denial of the richness of life forms once turned into resources or energy quanta, technocratic notion of human behaviour and thought, blindness to the ecological context of our very lives by our reduction to mere means of production.

This is why Bookchin, while acknowledging the value of conventional reason within its own boundaries, always defends in counterpart the merits of dialectical reason, namely a reason that “acknowledges the developmental nature of reality by asserting in one fashion or another that A equals not only A but also not-A.” Hence his dialectical naturalism, the philosophical basis of Social Ecology itself, which conceives man as a thoughtful entity emerging from natural differentiation, in the sense that we are responsible for the cautious and sensitive gardening of life forms, including ourselves.

To be sure, the Enlightenment legacy is a Janus-faced one. Therefore, if Bookchin’s Social Ecology stands radically at odds with the overall acosmic tendency of eighteenth century philosophers (perhaps embodied at best by Immanuel Kant), he nevertheless places himself in the wake of some masterpieces of the time which had a hint of the imperious need to replace man’s emergence into the organic development of nature itself. Once again, Diderot stands as a key thinker, whose D’Alembert’s Dream not only provides for a naturalistic outlook, but also works as a weapon against the authority of the church and all the misconceptions that harbor superstition, such as the denial of the subjective pleasure to live and feel. This is an avowed influence on Social Ecology’s case for a ‘sensitive reason,’ as stated by Bookchin in his controversial article “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology,” where he lists the numerous roots of the Social Ecology project, among which one finds the “emancipatory promise of the revolutionary Enlightenment as articulated by the great encyclopedist, Denis Diderot,” along with the ecoanarchistic analyses of Kropotkin and the radical economic insights of Karl Marx.

Hence, if there is a dialectic of the Enlightenment, as German philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer described it in their major work of social philosophy, Bookchin formulates his own version of it, informed by his naturalistic outlook, assuming that “the flaw in Horkheimer and Adorno’s works on reason stems from their failure to integrate rationality with subjectivity in order to bring nature within the compass of sensibilité. To do so, they would have had to understand the message of Social Ecology, a realm that was completely outside their intellectual tradition.” (Bookchin, 1982: 276).

Notwithstanding this dialectical account of the Enlightenment legacy, Bookchin’s attachment to the powers of reason as guaranteeing freedom is a constant matter of controversy within revolutionary ecological circles. As seen above, a sharp-witted author like José Ardillo dismisses Bookchin’s thought for its progressive matrix far too dependent on Marx’s teleological conception of history. In the same fashion, a sharp thinker like David Watson, one of the publishers of the Fifth Estate journal, openly criticizes the author of Ecology of Freedom for his defense of civilization, which is seen, in spite of all the evils that accompanied its course, as the very milieu of the unfolding of human potentialities for mutual aid and socialist organization. When Bookchin puts forward an ambiguous notion of history, wherein a legacy of freedom coexists with a legacy of domination, thinking of the latter as an impediment to the unfolding of the former, Watson states that this is a typically progressive and western view. According to that view, he says, different modes of life are rapidly forgotten and deemed “defective, backward, underdeveloped, and eventually surpassed by progress,” finally being judged as “mere preparatory stages of modern market society.” (Watson, 1997: 118).

According to Watson, Bookchin’s progressive bent is openly expressed in a grossly evolutionist misconception of primitive peoples lives, supposed to face a stingy nature which constantly leaves them on the brink of starvation, an outlook not very different from what an Enlightenment philosopher like Condorcet could handle in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. This is where Bookchin’s thought finally proves to be nonecological, succumbing to the “mirage” of progress. Because of this supposed blindspot, Bookchin is not only said to fail to explore the very pathways he himself opened for Social Ecology, his “reactive defense of progress” is also considered as a mirrored image of the primitivism he so often dismissed. (Watson, 1996: 103) According to Watson, a survey of the rituals of primal and Indigenous societies and their enchanted relations to things is the key factor to revive appealing ideals and ecstatic visions radically opposed to the lifeless world of capitalist societies. If we are to fuel new values for an ecological society, then we should really throw ourselves into the kind of reverence the natives express for things, which are always thought of as embodiments of the divine. (Watson, 1997: 236)

This is precisely the kind of immersion Bookchin always stays reluctant about. But in my opinion, this is not a matter of progressive blindness. For example, when he criticizes Sahlin’s Stone Age Economics, this is mainly because he suspects, as many have done, that the anthropologist overread his material. This is not to say that absolutely nothing is worthwhile in primal societies, nor that it would not, in any case, enrich social criticism to expose primitive social habits, values, or behaviours in order to articulate them to a contemporary social vision. Indeed, if it was not the case, then one could not understand in any way why Bookchin grounds numerous anarcho-communist arguments in The Ecology of Freedom upon the rediscovery of three key features of organic societies: usufruct, complementarity (equality of unequals) and the irreductible minimum. Thinking in this way, Bookchin again revives Kropotkin’s insights in Mutual Aid. An outspoken modern thinker, a geographer and a scientist, the “prince of anarchy” nevertheless challenged the evolutionary trend in the Enlightenment legacy when he turned towards primitive people to find evidence of the permanent undercurrent of mutual aid, lurking behind the social coldness of modern institutions such as the State and the international market.

Actually, there is no disregard of the past in Bookchin’s works, no more than a progressive enthusiasm. He rather tries to build an original synthesis out of past and present—for example, when he turns to the communal treasures of organic societies, or when he studies the democractic institutions of Ancient Greece, or else the virtues of moral economy habits in a not too distant age. What he clearly fears is romanticizing organic societies, because he suspects that such a romantic vision would slowly drag social criticism down to the shady dealings of irrationalism, New Age neoshamanism or a fleeting sense of interconnectedness. And that would not be a progress at all, in Bookchin’s view, because it could educe a new kind of alienation under the guise of spiritual guidance.

Obviously, used this way, the word, progress, has a simple meaning that is nearly flat —every time an individual or a community shifts from oppression to freedom, from impoverished living conditions to decent ones or from alienation to a richer sensibility, then it is allowed to say that there has been progress. In the light of such a notion of human progress, and in spite of its seeming obviousness, we need to remain watchful when confronted by mystical and mythopoeic currents in ecology (especially asking ourselves, from a class conflict viewpoint, who has the time and means to indulge in such spiritual renewal?) Nor can we passively accept the overall indictment of civilization that even a fine writer like Watson sometimes indulges in, as in the following quotation: “Let us at least have the courage and the honesty (with ourselves) to admit that civilization has brought no ultimate good to our species, has failed to deliver what dubious promises it offered, while in planetary terms has proved an unmitigated disaster.” (Watson, 1997: 176). Instead of such a massive assertion, Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism has much to offer to all those committed to the flourishing of a sensitive reason, rescuing the best part of the Enlightenment legacy while radically challenging its crude rationalism.


As I pen these final lines, the grassroots movement of the Yellow vests, which started in November 2018, keeps on challenging the neoliberal French government and most of all, paves the way for radical, if not revolutionary, social change. Reinventing forms of direct action, such as occupying traffic circles and blocking toll booths, with massive protest marches scheduled every Saturday in Paris and other big cities, this multi-faceted and totally unpredictable movement soon expressed libertarian leanings.

Thus, while the first claims of the movement related to the rise of gas price, an utterly surprising call to generalize the autonomous communes rang out from the little northeast town of Commercy. The story behind this call is delicious and nearly quixotic. A little militant group steadily holds meetings in this town of 5,000 people. One day, during the course of the railroaders strike in the spring of 2018, a man comes to a meeting and hears about libertarian municipalism. He goes back home and starts reading about the topic. He does not reappear until the first preparatory meeting to support the local Yellow vests call to block a traffic circle. Then he kicks in, gives a speech and launches the rallying cry, “a Libertarian municipalism everywhere! Power back to the people, organized in face-to-face assemblies!” On November 17, 2018, the flag of libertarian municipalism fluttered on the traffic circle at the entrance of the town.

Of course, when compared, for instance, to the social experimentation occurring in Rojava, this example may seem anecdotal. At any rate, it proves that the practical utopia of libertarian municipalism (one of the political tenets of Social Ecology) is still inspirational, even (or maybe above all) for ordinary decent people who don’t think of themselves as experts in militancy. With all due respect to postanarchist sophisticated theories, when the usual state of things starts cracking everywhere, then Social Ecology has a great part to play as a desirable political and human horizon, empowering people in a really practical way. Those are the few and short-lived moments when, contrary to the typically postmodern assertion attributed to Fred Jameson, one glimpses that it may be easier to imagine the end of capitalism than to imagine the end of the world.


Ardillo, José. La liberté dans un monde fragile. Montreuil: L’Échappée, 2018.

Bookchin, Murray. Toward an Ecological Society. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980.

——— The Ecology of Freedom. Palo Alto: Cheshire Books, 1982.

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