Bookchin and Marx

“The fu­ture in­stead of the past”?

Reid Kane Kotlas
Platypus Review 90
October 22, 2016


Originally presen­ted as a talk at the 2016 An­nu­al Gath­er­ing of the In­sti­tute for So­cial Eco­logy, held at the ISE com­pound in Marsh­field, VT between Au­gust 19-21.

Platy­pus as a project seeks to re­late to the con­tem­por­ary left by fo­cus­ing on the Left in his­tory. We do this be­cause we think one’s un­der­stand­ing of his­tory is in fact one’s the­ory of the present, of how the present came to be and what might be­come of it.1 We try to un­der­stand the left polit­ics of the present in light of what the Left has been, so as to pro­voke crit­ic­al re­flec­tion. Is the Left today liv­ing up to the leg­acy it in­her­its? Are we fall­ing short of the as­pir­a­tions of the past? Must we?

Mur­ray Bookchin of­fers a com­pel­ling case of the dif­fi­culty of reck­on­ing with his­tory. Bookchin’s polit­ic­al ca­reer was fun­da­ment­ally shaped by his edu­ca­tion in and ul­ti­mate dis­en­chant­ment with Marx­ism. He joined the “of­fi­cial” Com­mun­ist move­ment in 1930 at the age of nine. By the end of the thirties, dis­con­cer­ted by Sta­lin­ist lead­er­ship, he found refuge in the Trot­sky­ist move­ment. As the Second World War began, there was an ex­pect­a­tion that it would set the stage for a new wave of world re­volu­tion, re­quir­ing well-pre­pared re­volu­tion­ary lead­er­ship just as the Bolshev­iks had provided at the end of the First World War.

Yet Trot­sky’s judg­ment was not above re­proach among his sym­path­izers and sup­port­ers. Ques­tions lingered about his role in the de­gen­er­a­tion of the Bolshev­ik lead­er­ship that had cul­min­ated in Sta­lin­ism. These con­cerns were only com­poun­ded by his in­sist­ence that his fol­low­ers de­fend the So­viet Uni­on.

Bookchin was frus­trated in his ef­forts to win work­ers over to the cause of the Fourth In­ter­na­tion­al, find­ing them con­cerned only with their wages and work­ing con­di­tions. Trot­sky­ist op­pos­i­tion to the war proved a fur­ther obstacle due to pop­u­lar sup­port for the Al­lied cause. His frus­tra­tion with Trot­sky­ism as a prac­tic­al polit­ics would cul­min­ate in skep­ti­cism of the os­tens­ibly Marx­ist con­cep­tion of the work­ing class as es­sen­tially re­volu­tion­ary. His waver­ing was only en­cour­aged by the per­ceived dog­mat­ism of Trot­sky­ist lead­er­ship after Trot­sky’s as­sas­sin­a­tion.

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