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.

By the end of the war, the hope for a new re­volu­tion­ary wave re­peat­ing the Bolshev­ik ex­per­i­ence had been crushed. Even the most faith­ful Marx­ists were deeply troubled by the ap­par­ent re­fut­a­tion of Marx’s own ex­pect­a­tions. Marx­ist lead­er­ship of the so­cial­ist move­ment, now a cen­tury re­moved from the Com­mun­ist Mani­festo, seem­ingly had noth­ing pos­it­ive to show for it­self.


Yet Bookchin’s crisis of faith in Marx­ism did not res­ult in de­pol­it­i­ciz­a­tion. He sought an­oth­er way for­ward for so­cial­ism that would ex­ceed the lim­it­a­tions of Marx­ism. As Bookchin knew, Trot­sky had him­self ad­mit­ted that if the war did not cul­min­ate in re­volu­tion, “then we should doubt­less have to pose the ques­tion of re­vis­ing our con­cep­tion of the present epoch and its driv­ing forces.”2

After ded­ic­at­ing two dec­ades to reck­on­ing with the fail­ure of Marx­ism, Bookchin was con­fron­ted with an op­por­tun­ity to im­part the wealth of his own ex­per­i­ence to the New Left gen­er­a­tion. Alarmed by the grow­ing in­flu­ence of neo-Marx­ist cur­rents among young rad­ic­als, Bookchin warned in his fam­ous 1969 pamph­let “Listen, Marx­ist! “ that “All the old crap of the thirties is com­ing back again… and in a more vul­gar­ized form than ever.”3

While the New Left had pre­vi­ously defined it­self at vari­ance with the “old” (Sta­lin­ist and Trot­sky­ist) left­ism of their par­ents, 1968 rep­res­en­ted a crisis which pro­voked a re­turn not only to Marx but to Len­in as well, al­beit through the de­tour of Mao­ism. For Bookchin, this rep­res­en­ted a step back­ward, re­coil­ing from the am­bi­gu­ities of an un­pre­ced­en­ted situ­ation in­to the com­fort­ing cer­tainty of tra­di­tion.

Bookchin was not in­ter­ested in simply dis­miss­ing Marx­ism, but in un­der­stand­ing why it found re­newed ap­peal. He had not come to re­ject Marx­ism out of hand, but to ap­pre­ci­ate its plaus­ib­il­ity while re­cog­niz­ing its ul­ti­mate in­ad­equacy. As he put it, “[T]he prob­lem is not to ‘aban­don’ Marx­ism or to ‘an­nul’ it, but to tran­scend it dia­lect­ic­ally, just as Marx tran­scen­ded Hegel­i­an philo­sophy, Ri­car­d­i­an eco­nom­ics, and Blan­quist tac­tics and modes of or­gan­iz­a­tion.” For Bookchin, this meant re­cog­niz­ing that cap­it­al­ism had de­veloped bey­ond the stage Marx him­self had con­fron­ted, spe­cific­ally in achiev­ing “a more ad­vanced stage of tech­no­lo­gic­al de­vel­op­ment than Marx could have clearly an­ti­cip­ated,” and that this re­quired “a new cri­tique,” “new modes of struggle, of or­gan­iz­a­tion, of pro­pa­ganda, and of life­style.”

Bookchin thought Marx un­der­stood why so­ci­ety was di­vided in­to mu­tu­ally hos­tile classes: that this was rooted in “scarcity,” and that scarcity must be over­come to ab­ol­ish the ill ef­fects and real­ize the thwarted po­ten­tials of the “era” defined by it. Yet Marx­ism re­mained be­hold­en to the very con­di­tion of scarcity it sup­posedly cri­ti­cized, seek­ing to use meth­ods ad­ap­ted to this con­di­tion to over­come it.

Bookchin claimed that Marx un­der­stood the over­com­ing of scarcity and thus the achieve­ment of the “class­less so­ci­ety” on the mod­el of the trans­ition from feud­al­ism to cap­it­al­ism. Bookchin’s ex­per­i­ence led him to ques­tion wheth­er “we [can] ex­plain the trans­ition from a class so­ci­ety to a class­less so­ci­ety by means of the same dia­lectic that ac­counts for the trans­ition of one class so­ci­ety to an­oth­er.” Thus for Marx, the pro­let­ari­at was to de­vel­op with­in cap­it­al­ism un­til it was able to take polit­ic­al power, just as the bour­geois­ie had de­veloped un­der feud­al­ism.

Bookchin came to be­lieve that this was “ri­dicu­lous,” and that “what we can learn from the re­volu­tions of the past is what all re­volu­tions have in com­mon and their pro­found lim­it­a­tions com­pared with the enorm­ous pos­sib­il­it­ies that are now open to us.”

murray-bookchin-2 murray-bookchin-writing

These pos­sib­il­it­ies res­ul­ted from the fact that bour­geois so­ci­ety was now “in the pro­cess of dis­in­teg­rat­ing all the so­cial classes that once gave it sta­bil­ity,” mak­ing the “class line” ring hol­low. It was not class struggle but the “de­com­pos­i­tion” of classes that would yield the class­less so­ci­ety. This pro­duced a single great “non-class,” drawn from “all strata of so­ci­ety,” and es­pe­cially the young, that would not need to be won over to the cause of re­volu­tion be­cause it was already re­volu­tion­ary in its very lack of dis­cip­line and con­form­ity. Bookchin thus in­ter­preted the break­down of class dy­nam­ics in terms of the youth re­volt against es­tab­lished au­thor­ity and tra­di­tion.

Bookchin asked, “When the hell are we fi­nally go­ing to cre­ate a move­ment that looks to the fu­ture in­stead of to the past? When will we be­gin to learn from what is be­ing born in­stead of what is dy­ing?” He cred­its Marx with try­ing to do just this. Yet Marx also knew that the view of fu­ture is dis­tor­ted and ob­scured by the weight of the past, which con­sti­tutes the con­di­tion un­der which any­thing new might be brought about. The new must be un­der­stood not merely as ab­stract op­pos­i­tion to the old but as defined in over­com­ing the bur­dens of his­tory, as achiev­ing something the past poin­ted to­ward but nev­er real­ized.

Bookchin cites the fam­ous open­ing chapter of The Eight­eenth Bru­maire, in which Marx con­tras­ted the bour­geois re­volu­tions, which al­ways re­sor­ted to mim­ick­ing the past, with the pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion whose po­etry would be drawn from the fu­ture. Yet Marx’s con­cern was to warn that in seek­ing to bring about the new we might, des­pite ourselves, come to rely on the old and fa­mil­i­ar, and in do­ing so, fall be­low the level of what came be­fore in­stead of rising above it.

What, then, for Marx, dis­tin­guished the re­volu­tion of the 19th cen­tury from that of the 18th?

The in­dus­tri­al re­volu­tion was a turn­ing-point in his­tory not simply be­cause of the “tech­no­logy” it in­tro­duced, but be­cause of the trans­form­a­tion of so­cial re­la­tions em­bod­ied in that tech­no­logy. This trans­form­a­tion did not achieve some stable en­d­point, but pro­duced a crisis that re­mains un­re­solved. If one had to judge, the only cer­tain con­sequence of this change has been the dom­in­a­tion of so­cial life by cap­it­al, by the im­per­at­ives of re­pro­du­cing not merely privately-owned means of pro­duc­tion, but also — or rather, es­pe­cially — wage labor.

The prob­lem posed by cap­it­al is un­pre­ced­en­ted in his­tory, and so also is the struggle to over­come it. Re­cog­niz­ing what was new would mean un­der­stand­ing how it came to dis­tin­guish it­self from what came be­fore: how the so­cial re­la­tion of cap­it­al emerged his­tor­ic­ally, what it could po­ten­tially mean. Marx did not as­sim­il­ate the prob­lem of cap­it­al to the per­en­ni­al prob­lem of scarcity, but rather tried to un­der­stand why the last two hun­dred years have amoun­ted to such a pro­found dis­rup­tion in the course of his­tory. Marx un­der­stood the mod­ern peri­od defined by the bour­geois re­volu­tions to be an in­com­plete trans­ition from the class so­ci­ety that began 10,000 years ago with the ag­ri­cul­tur­al re­volu­tion, to a new so­ci­ety that real­izes the po­ten­tials cre­ated in the or­deal of class so­ci­ety.

Bookchin con­trasts “a re­press­ive class so­ci­ety, based on ma­ter­i­al scarcity” with “a lib­er­at­ory class­less so­ci­ety, based on ma­ter­i­al abund­ance,” the lat­ter sup­posedly a unique product of the tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vances of the 20th cen­tury. Yet Marx un­der­stood class so­ci­ety as based not on scarcity but “abund­ance,” on so­ci­ety pro­du­cing more than is ne­ces­sary to main­tain the dir­ect pro­du­cers. The fra­gile pro­duc­tion of sub­sist­ence through ag­ri­cul­ture could only be sus­tained through the pro­duc­tion of a sur­plus con­sumed by a class of non-pro­du­cers that over­saw the af­fairs of so­ci­ety as a whole. This “rul­ing” class would main­tain them­selves even at the cost of sub­ject­ing the dir­ect pro­du­cers to the pains of in­suf­fi­cient pro­duc­tion, de­priving them of an ad­equate share of their own product.


So­ci­ety hence­forth has been de­pend­ent on the pro­duc­tion of a sur­plus product and hence the main­ten­ance of a rul­ing class, who ex­ploit the pro­duc­tion of the rest of so­ci­ety in lieu of en­ga­ging in pro­duct­ive labor them­selves. So­ci­ety has been cap­able of pro­du­cing abund­ance since the Neo­lith­ic era. Crises of un­der­pro­duc­tion would peri­od­ic­ally elim­in­ate large por­tions of the pop­u­la­tion, wheth­er through fam­ine and star­va­tion, epi­dem­ic, or war­fare, but over the longue durée so­ci­ety has sur­vived un­der­pro­duc­tion. Marx was con­cerned with the dis­tinct­ively new kind of crisis that af­flic­ted bour­geois so­ci­ety: crises of over­pro­duc­tion. Not of abund­ance that tem­por­ar­ily gives way to scarcity, but of over­abund­ance present­ing it­self in the form of scarcity: over­abund­ant ma­ter­i­al wealth was ex­per­i­enced by the vast ma­jor­ity as the de­pre­ci­ation of the value of their labor, it­self as a con­sequence of the in­crease in the pro­ductiv­ity of labor.

As labor be­comes more pro­duct­ive, labor be­comes more dis­pens­able. Marx ri­diculed John Stu­art Mill’s puz­zle­ment over the fact that the in­tro­duc­tion of ma­chinery did not light­en but in­creased the bur­den of the work­ers, be­cause he un­der­stood that so long as in­di­vidu­als were de­pend­ent on the op­por­tun­ity to find em­ploy­ment to sub­sist, auto­ma­tion would be used as a weapon by em­ploy­ers against the work­ing class, to keep labor as cheap and pli­able as pos­sible and to li­quid­ate whatever obstacles or­gan­ized labor might throw up. To bor­row a phrase of Max Horkheimer, ma­chinery “made not work but the work­ers su­per­flu­ous.”4

Marx re­cog­nized that so­cial­ism was a symp­tom of cap­it­al. It is not in spite, but pre­cisely be­cause the work­ing class is an in­teg­ral part of cap­it­al­ism that its polit­ics could ar­tic­u­late po­ten­tials that cap­it­al­ism it­self only real­izes neg­at­ively. Bookchin relates Marx’s “fam­ous the­ory of im­mis­er­a­tion,” ac­cord­ing to which cap­it­al­ism, in re­lent­lessly driv­ing down the con­di­tions of the work­ing class, com­pels them to “re­volt.” Yet this does not cap­ture the his­tor­ic­al dy­nam­ics Marx ac­tu­ally de­scribes, in which work­ers are first com­pelled to or­gan­ize among them­selves in their “eco­nom­ic struggle” over spe­cif­ic terms of em­ploy­ment, or­gan­iz­a­tions that must grow and spread and change along with cap­it­al. This cul­min­ates in the ne­ces­sity of or­gan­iz­ing the work­ing class “as a class.” For Marx, this meant polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion for so­cial­ism, as so­cial­ism meant so­ci­ety tak­ing con­trol of it­self and real­iz­ing its own po­ten­tial, as the fruit of its co­oper­a­tion in labor.

When Bookchin says, “So­cial re­volu­tions are not made by parties, groups or cadres, they oc­cur as a res­ult of deep-seated his­tor­ic forces and con­tra­dic­tions that ac­tiv­ate large sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion,” he fails to note that for Marx, the “deep-seated” and “his­tor­ic” char­ac­ter of these forces is ar­tic­u­lated in the form­a­tion of the so­cial­ist party, which gives sub­stance to the “ten­sion between the ac­tu­al and the pos­sible, between what-is and what-could-be.” By con­trast, as Bookchin him­self notes, “Ab­ject misery alone does not pro­duce re­volu­tions; more of­ten than not, it pro­duces an aim­less de­mor­al­iz­a­tion, or worse, a private, per­son­al­ized struggle to sur­vive.” It is hard not to sus­pect that what Bookchin in the same pamph­let val­or­ized as the re­volu­tion­ary de­gen­er­a­tion of so­ci­ety pro­duced little more than such misery, the very sort of ab­jec­tion that cap­it­al­ism yields when the work­ing class is un­able to ar­tic­u­late in polit­ic­al terms its his­tor­ic in­terests in over­com­ing the ne­ces­sity of labor.

When the so­cial­ist party fails, the task falls to de­fend­ers of cap­it­al­ism, for whom the over­com­ing of ne­ces­sary labor can only mani­fest it­self in the su­per­flu­ous­ness of work­ers, or would-be work­ers who in­creas­ingly fall in­to per­man­ent un­em­ploy­ment and un­der­em­ploy­ment.

While Bookchin claims Marx was un­able to fore­see the de­vel­op­ment of state cap­it­al­ism, he was in fact acutely aware that in the ab­sence of the polit­ic­al lead­er­ship of the work­ing class, cap­it­al­ism could only be­come ever more cent­ral­ized and au­thor­it­ari­an, ul­ti­mately re­quir­ing the state to man­age a so­ci­ety riv­en by in­tol­er­able con­tra­dic­tions. This was the defin­it­ive les­son of Marx’s own polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence: the fail­ure of the so­cial­ists to lead the re­volu­tions of 1848, spe­cific­ally in France, led to what Marx called “Bona­partism” and later Marx­ists, in­vok­ing the “Second Em­pire” of Louis Bona­parte, called “im­per­i­al­ism.” Marx warned that if the task dra­mat­ic­ally posed by 1848 — the polit­ic­al lead­er­ship of cap­it­al­ism by the work­ing class party for so­cial­ism in the form of the “dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at” — re­mained un­ac­com­plished, the only res­ult would be the de­gen­er­a­tion of so­ci­ety would de­gen­er­ate un­der the dic­tat­or­ship of cap­it­al.

Today, we can only look back at Bookchin’s in­junc­tion and won­der wheth­er the need for Marx­ism has in fact been over­come by cap­it­al­ism it­self, and if so, wheth­er this has been de­sir­able. After all, coal and steel re­main the basis of in­dus­tri­al tech­no­logy, while the peri­od­ic crises Bookchin con­signed to a by­gone era have re­turned with a ven­geance. Bookchin him­self now be­longs to the very past he im­plored his read­ers to shed for the sake of the fu­ture. In­deed, if today there is today no fu­ture to speak of, it is be­cause the fu­ture it­self be­longs to the past, and so it is to the past we must turn to the past if we wish to go bey­ond the present.|P


1 Chris Cutrone, “Cap­it­al in his­tory.” Platy­pus Re­view 7 (Oc­to­ber 2008).
2 Quoted in Janet Biehl, “Bookchin’s Trot­sky­ist dec­ade: 1939-1948.” Platy­pus Re­view 52 (Decem­ber 2012).
3 Mur­ray Bookchin, Listen, Marx­ist! (New York: An­arch­os, 1969). All quo­ta­tions that fol­low refer to the on­line edi­tion.
4 Max Horkheimer, “The Au­thor­it­ari­an State.” Te­los 15:2 (Spring 1973 [1940]), 3.

6 thoughts on “Bookchin and Marx

  1. “Bookchin him­self now be­longs to the very past he im­plored his read­ers to shed for the sake of the fu­ture. In­deed, if today there is today no fu­ture to speak of, it is be­cause the fu­ture it­self be­longs to the past, and so it is to the past we must turn to the past if we wish to go bey­ond the present.”

    The last paragraph of this essay above is either a series of typos or a written dialectical materialist version of Groundhog Day.

    As a lapsed Trotskyist myself, I’m not unlike the whiskey priest of literature who has also lost his faith and has been banished to the periphery of intellectual discourse, if that is what you can call that which is represented here by Platypus.

  2. How long will you continue to promote diversions to the revolution taking place? How long will you ignore Bob Avakian’s New Synthesis of Communism?

    Rosa Lichtenstein – you need to study more dialectics! anybody who attacks dialectics is a revisionist.

    • In a quiet private ceremony, Bob Avakian and Jack Barnes were married today in a brilliant strategic move to arrive at the final level of dialectical synthesis. They will honeymoon in Turkey in Trotsky’s old house, a real fixer upper seen here:

      In order to stabilize the antithesis of the thesis, they will spend equal time in Stalin’s summer villa in Sochi.

      Rarely allowed by their deeply loyal followers to just relax and kid around, they will be acting out some scenes from Great Expectations between Miss Havisham and Stella, alternating roles to indicate the synthesis of complete equality between them. Neither one being top or bottom, they have adopted spooning as the go to position, and, indeed, more fitting for men of a certain age.

      Notes of congratulations and dead flower arrangements can be sent to the happy couple at either address.

  3. Pingback: Bookchin and Marx — The Charnel-House – radicalsubjectivityblog

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed the piece and I feel very much in tune with it. Specially as one of my constant issues is with many anarchists who reject an idea of the future and seem to focus only on some sort of resistance-as-martyrdom praxis.

    That said, maybe it’s my being an ESL speaker but I think the last paragraph became garbled in editing,

    “In­deed, if today there is today no fu­ture to speak of, it is be­cause the fu­ture it­self be­longs to the past, and so it is to the past we must turn to the past if we wish to go bey­ond the present”

    not be
    “In­deed, if today thereno fu­ture to speak of, it is be­cause the fu­ture it­self be­longs to the past, and so it is to the past we must turn to if we wish to go bey­ond the present.”


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