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Murray Bookchin

Capital’s Destruction of the Environment: Marx’s Inadequate Response

By Ignacio Guerrero - Black Rose Anarchist Federation, June 4, 2017; image by William Morris (1834-96)

This piece engages claims around Marx’s legacy as a thinker and his relation to ecology. A promotional blurb for a volume recently published by Haymarket Books on the subject, Marx and the Earth by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, goes so far as to claim that the authors are the “founders of Eco-socialist thought.” This narrative is taken to task in detail here by the author, who concludes with some brief reflections on an alternative vision of ecologically oriented socialism. 

Kohei Saito, writing in Monthly Review in February 2016 on Marx’s “Ecological Notebooks” (1868), distinguishes between “first-stage” and “second-stage” eco-socialists, with the former, an earlier wave, recognizing Karl Marx’s passing references to environmentalism but considering him overall to be a Promethean, and the latter instead claiming Marx to have been a profound ecological thinker. The main theorist presenting this alternative reading has been John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology (2000) and The Ecological Revolution (2009), co-author of The Ecological Rift (2010) and Marx and the Earth (2016/7), and editor of Monthly Review.

Foster bases his argumentation for second-stage ecosocialism on Marx’s statement at the end of “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” in Capital, vol. 1, in the section on industrial-capitalist agriculture, where Marx states that, besides “concentrat[ing]” the proletariat—the “historical motive power of society”—in the cities through the enclosure of the commons and the dispossession of the peasantry, capitalism “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man [sic] and the Earth” in the sense that it exhausts the soil by demanding unsustainable extraction from it (637-8). Capitalism thus proceeds by “undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker” (638). Marx even states that “[t]he more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in […] the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction” (638, emphasis added). Yet he views such environmental degradation as dynamically “compel[ling the] systematic restoration [of the metabolic interaction] as a regulative law of social production.”

Marx isn’t very specific here about what a movement to restore the “natural metabolic interaction” between humanity and the rest of nature would look like, and he doesn’t clarify whether environmental sustainability would be assured in a post-capitalist society, or whether the question of the domination of nature goes beyond the humanistic struggle for the liberation of the proletariat. Initially, it must be said that a passing comment on the capitalist degradation of the soil does not make Marx a radical ecologist, especially when juxtaposed with many of his more Promethean statements. In this sense, the first-stage ecosocialists make a convincing argument. Let’s not forget that this famous statement on the soil comes in the same volume wherein Marx effectively endorses the very dispossession of the peasantry for “dialectically” giving rise to capitalism and thereafter socialism and communism, per the stages theory of history. In “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” Marx explicitly calls large-scale industrial-capitalist agriculture revolutionary, “for the reason that it annihilates the bulwark of the old society, the ‘peasant,’ and substitutes for him the wage-labourer” (637), while in “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels deploy similar reasoning in lauding the bourgeoisie for having destroyed the putative “idiocy of rural life.”

Municipalist syndicalism: organizing the new working class

By Alexander Kolokotronis - ROAR Mag, September 9, 2017

A municipalist revolution is impossible without the support and cooperation of labor unions. In some cases, labor unions might themselves take the lead in promulgating a municipalist shift. To effectively pursue this path, the left must grapple with the diverse composition and structure of the working class — joining calls for union democracy with nascent municipalist movements. Experiments in participatory democracy can then be tried and tested at the intra-union level, nourishing possibilities for subsequent municipal-wide implementation.

Developments in the United States and Spain are showing that municipalist participatory platforms can win. Examples include the mayoral election of Chokwe Lumumba Jr. in Jackson, Mississippi on a three-pronged platform of building peoples’ assemblies, a solidarity economy and a network of progressive political candidates. A number of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates are running on platforms of expanding participatory democracy and the workers’ cooperative sector. Municipalist movements are proliferating as a means of resisting Donald Trump and a rising far-right.

This comes at a time when labor unions are in decline, with internal democratization needed for revitalization. To raise their appeal, stimulate favorable public opinion and extend their influence, labor unions must also provide and act on a political vision. This is a vision of attaining power at the municipal level, and working to transform it.

Libertarian Municipalism: Networked Cities as Resilient Platforms for Post-Capitalist Transition

By - C4SS, January 20, 2018

We live in a time of terminal crisis for centralized institutions of all kinds, including the two most notable members of the genus: states and large corporations. Both a major cause and major symptom of this transition is the steady reduction in the amount of labor needed to produce a given level of output, and consequently in total aggregate demand for wage labor. This shows up in shrinking rates of workforce participation, and a shift of a growing part of the remaining workforce from full-time work to part-time and precarious employment (the latter including temporary and contract work). Another symptom is the retrenchment of the state in the face of fiscal crisis and a trend towards social austerity in most Western countries; this is paralleled by a disintegration of traditional employer-based safety nets, as part of the decline in full-time employment.

Peak Oil (and other fossil fuels) is creating pressure to shorten global supply and distribution chains. At the same time, the shift in advantage from military technologies for power projection to technologies for area denial means that the imperial costs of enforcing a globalized economic system of outsourced production under the legal control of Western capital are becoming prohibitive.

The same technological trends that are reducing the total need for labor also, in many cases, make direct production for use in the informal, social and household economies much more economically feasible. Cheap open-source CNC machine tools, networked information and digital platforms, Permaculture and community gardens, alternative currencies and mutual credit systems, all reduce the scale of feasible production for many goods to the household, multiple household and neighborhood levels, and similarly reduce the capital outlays required for directly producing consumption needs to a scale within the means of such groupings

Put all these trends together, and we see the old model of secure livelihood through wages collapsing at the same time new technology is destroying the material basis for dependence on corporations and the state.

But like all transitions, this is a transition not only from something, but to something. That something bears a more than passing resemblance to the libertarian communist future Pyotr Kropotkin described in The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops: the relocalization of most economic functions into mixed agricultural/industrial villages, the control of production by those directly engaged in it, and a fading of the differences between town and country, work and leisure, and brain-work and muscle-work.

Municipalist syndicalism: organizing the new working class

By Alexander Kolokotronis - ROAR Mag, September 9, 2017

A municipalist revolution is impossible without the support and cooperation of labor unions. In some cases, labor unions might themselves take the lead in promulgating a municipalist shift. To effectively pursue this path, the left must grapple with the diverse composition and structure of the working class — joining calls for union democracy with nascent municipalist movements. Experiments in participatory democracy can then be tried and tested at the intra-union level, nourishing possibilities for subsequent municipal-wide implementation.

Developments in the United States and Spain are showing that municipalist participatory platforms can win. Examples include the mayoral election of Chokwe Lumumba Jr. in Jackson, Mississippi on a three-pronged platform of building peoples’ assemblies, a solidarity economy and a network of progressive political candidates. A number of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates are running on platforms of expanding participatory democracy and the workers’ cooperative sector. Municipalist movements are proliferating as a means of resisting Donald Trump and a rising far-right.

This comes at a time when labor unions are in decline, with internal democratization needed for revitalization. To raise their appeal, stimulate favorable public opinion and extend their influence, labor unions must also provide and act on a political vision. This is a vision of attaining power at the municipal level, and working to transform it.

Murray Bookchin: Anarchism without the Working Class

By Wayne Price - Anarkismo, December 3, 2015

Although he died in 2006, Murray Bookchin is recently in the news.  Staid bourgeois newspapers report, with apparent shock, that part of the Kurdish revolutionary national movement has been influenced by the ideas of Murray Bookchin, a U.S. anarchist (Enzinna 2015).  However, I am not going to discuss this development here. My topic is not how Bookchin’s political philosophy may apply to the Kurds in Rojava (important as this is), but how it might apply to the U.S.A. and other industrialized and industrializing countries.

Nor will I review the whole range of Bookchin’s life and work (see White 2008).   Bookchin made enormous contributions to anarchism, especially—but not only—his integration of ecology with anarchism.  At the same time, in my opinion, his work was deeply flawed in that he rejected the working class as playing a major role in the transition from capitalism to anti-authoritarian socialism.  Like many other radicals in the period after World War II, he was shaken by the defeats of the world working class during the ‘thirties and ‘forties, and impressed by the prosperity and stability of the Western world after the Second World War. Previously a Communist and then a Trotskyist, he now turned to a version of anarchism which rejected working class revolution.

This was not the historically dominant view held by anarchists.  Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Makhno, Goldman, Durrutti,  the anarcho-syndicalists and the anarcho-communists—they believed that  “anarchism is a revolutionary, internationalist, class struggle form of libertarian socialism…. Syndicalism [revolutionary unionism—WP] was a form of mass anarchism…and the great majority of anarchists embraced it.” (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009; 170)  For them, the “broad anarchist tradition” was “‘class struggle’ anarchism, sometimes called revolutionary communist anarchism….” (19)

However, in his 1969 pamphlet, “Listen, Marxist!” (republished in Bookchin 1986; 195—242), Bookchin denounced “the myth of the proletariat.”  He wrote, "We have seen the working class neutralized as the ‘agent of revolutionary change,’ albeit still struggling within a bourgeois framework for more wages [and] shorter hours….The class struggle…has [been]…co-opted into capitalism…. " (202) The last collection of his writings repeats his belief, “…The Second World War…brought to an end to the entire era of revolutionary proletarian socialism…that had emerged in June 1848” (Bookchin 2015; 127). By an “era of revolutionary proletarian socialism,” he did not mean there had been successful workers’ revolutions, but that there had been mass working class movements (Socialist, Communist, and anarchist), with a number of attempted revolutions.

He wrote, “…The worker [is] dominated by the factory hierarchy, by the industrial routine, and by the work ethic….Capitalist production not only renews the social relations of capitalism with each working day…it also renews the psyche, values, and ideology of capitalism” (Bookchin 1986; 203 & 206). (Why these deadening effects of industrial capitalist production did not prevent the existence of a movement for “revolutionary proletarian socialism” for an “entire era” from 1848 to World War II, he did not explain.)

Bookchin did not deny that there still were workers’ struggles for better wages and shorter hours, but he no longer saw this low level class conflict as indicating a potential for a workers’ revolution.  Nor did he deny that workers might become revolutionary, but only, he said, if they stopped thinking of themselves as workers, focused on issues unrelated to their daily work, and regarded themselves as declassed “citizens.”

Capital’s Destruction of the Environment: Marx’s Inadequate Response

By Ignacio Guerrero - Black Rose Anarchist Federation, June 4, 2017; image by William Morris (1834-96)

This piece engages claims around Marx’s legacy as a thinker and his relation to ecology. A promotional blurb for a volume recently published by Haymarket Books on the subject, Marx and the Earth by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, goes so far as to claim that the authors are the “founders of Eco-socialist thought.” This narrative is taken to task in detail here by the author, who concludes with some brief reflections on an alternative vision of ecologically oriented socialism. 

Kohei Saito, writing in Monthly Review in February 2016 on Marx’s “Ecological Notebooks” (1868), distinguishes between “first-stage” and “second-stage” eco-socialists, with the former, an earlier wave, recognizing Karl Marx’s passing references to environmentalism but considering him overall to be a Promethean, and the latter instead claiming Marx to have been a profound ecological thinker. The main theorist presenting this alternative reading has been John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology (2000) and The Ecological Revolution (2009), co-author of The Ecological Rift (2010) and Marx and the Earth (2016/7), and editor of Monthly Review.

Foster bases his argumentation for second-stage ecosocialism on Marx’s statement at the end of “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” in Capital, vol. 1, in the section on industrial-capitalist agriculture, where Marx states that, besides “concentrat[ing]” the proletariat—the “historical motive power of society”—in the cities through the enclosure of the commons and the dispossession of the peasantry, capitalism “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man [sic] and the Earth” in the sense that it exhausts the soil by demanding unsustainable extraction from it (637-8). Capitalism thus proceeds by “undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker” (638). Marx even states that “[t]he more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in […] the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction” (638, emphasis added). Yet he views such environmental degradation as dynamically “compel[ling the] systematic restoration [of the metabolic interaction] as a regulative law of social production.”

Marx isn’t very specific here about what a movement to restore the “natural metabolic interaction” between humanity and the rest of nature would look like, and he doesn’t clarify whether environmental sustainability would be assured in a post-capitalist society, or whether the question of the domination of nature goes beyond the humanistic struggle for the liberation of the proletariat. Initially, it must be said that a passing comment on the capitalist degradation of the soil does not make Marx a radical ecologist, especially when juxtaposed with many of his more Promethean statements. In this sense, the first-stage ecosocialists make a convincing argument. Let’s not forget that this famous statement on the soil comes in the same volume wherein Marx effectively endorses the very dispossession of the peasantry for “dialectically” giving rise to capitalism and thereafter socialism and communism, per the stages theory of history. In “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” Marx explicitly calls large-scale industrial-capitalist agriculture revolutionary, “for the reason that it annihilates the bulwark of the old society, the ‘peasant,’ and substitutes for him the wage-labourer” (637), while in “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels deploy similar reasoning in lauding the bourgeoisie for having destroyed the putative “idiocy of rural life.”

Anthropocene vs Capitalocene: a Reflection on the Question, “What Have I Done?”

By Chris Burnett - Counterpunch, May 13, 2016

The International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) has yet to recognize, for scientific reasons, our current geological epoch as the Anthropocene, or “Age of Humans”. The term was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 due to the fact that humans are changing the face of the planet, and are clearly responsible for the current 6th mass extinction event and climate disruption. Eco-radicals – black-red-green – might prefer the term Capitalocene, or the “Age of Capital”.

The former implies that humanity is an undifferentiated whole while the latter suggests that capital, and its system of class and power relations, are the real problem, the real driving force that has altered the planet so extensively. I prefer the latter, of course, for political reasons.

There is no substitute for understanding the historical forces of capitalism that has brought us to the edge. The logic of capitalism is grow or die, and we are all being dragged towards the die part. We need targets of accountability, and we need remedies for the dispossessed. There is a biological debt that must be paid by the most rapacious among us.

But yet, I am still sympathetic to the Anthropocene label because it makes me feel personally responsible. The collective “we”. There is something unsettling about it, and we all need to be immediately unsettled. It puts the burden of action on all of us, and counterintuitively, might pull us out of our comfortable anthropocentric worldview. Eco-radicals rightly put the blame at the doorstep of capitalism and the state, but we should all feel personally responsible, in our collective guts.

There are approximately 150-200 species going extinct everyday. The background rate of the normal extinction process is roughly one to five species a year. We are at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate today due to human activities. As far as the last members of a doomed species might be concerned, humans are responsible, not just the capitalist class. To them, it is the Anthropocene. Might your perspective on this issue be determined by which side of the axe you are on?

If I were to anthropomorphize those lost species, they might provide us an analogy to chew on. They might say, “imagine the surviving members of countless families murdered from bombs dropped by Bush, or assassinated with drones sent by Obama. Do you think they would care about the internal political dynamics of the US after such a tragedy?”

From the survivors perspective, it is the US government, the US Empire system, that killed their relatives. Our friends pondering this analogy for us might just make the same argument in regards to the human race: “yes, okay, we understand there are class distinctions. But, from our perspective, you are the problem. You are that system.”

I am reminded of Noam Chomsky’s use of the word “we” when discussing the crimes of empire. I recall feeling defensive when he implied we all had responsibility, because, well, I opposed imperialism! But I think he was right. In his 1967 essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, he writes, reflecting on Dwight Macdonald’s question as to what extent the people are responsible for their own government’s crimes,

“We can hardly avoid asking ourselves to what extent the American people bear responsibility for the savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population in Vietnam… As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years – on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions.”

Continuing at the end of the essay,

“Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. “Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdonald concludes: “Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam – as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.”

That is the question we are all faced with today, “What have I done?”, as we observe fresh atrocities committed against the biosphere and all life on this planet. Only those that resist authority and capitalism have the right to condemn our modern death-camp paymasters.

Eco-Socialism and Decentralism

By Wayne Price - Infoshop.org, January 11, 2016

Theorists of the climate-justice movement have been raising decentralist ideas as part of their programs for an ecologically-balanced society. This ecological program means more local democracy, workers’ management of industry, consumer coops, and federations of radically-democratic institutions. Such ideas revive the decentralist ideas of anarchism.

From conservatives and liberals to Marxists, there is faith in big machines, big industries, big corporations, big cities, big countries, big buildings, and big government—a belief in the necessity of centralized, bureaucratic, top-down, socially-alienated, institutions. This is not to say that most people like giant cities, big business, or big government; but they do not see any alternative.

Instead, anarchists have advocated localism, face-to-face direct democracy, self-governing agricultural-industrial communes, workers’ self-management of industry, consumer cooperatives, appropriate technology, and federations and networks of such radically-democratic institutions. Many people reject anarchism because they believe such decentralism to be unrealistic.

However, in our time there is a new development: writers and theorists of the ecology/environmental/climate-justice movement have been raising decentralist concepts as part of their programs. They include moderate liberals, radical ecologists, and even Marxists. Mostly they have no idea that they are redeveloping anarchism. I will examine this phenomenon.

Our Synthetic Environment

By Murray Bookchin - 1962

In his very first published book, Murray Bookchin, writing under the pseudonym "Lewis Herber", warns of the dangers of pesticide use, and espouses an ecological and environmentalist worldview.

Our Synthetic Environment was one of the first books of the modern period in which an author espoused an ecological and environmentalist worldview. It predates Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson, a more widely known book on the same topic widely credited as starting the environmental movement.

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