Reading Bob Black’s Anarchy after Leftism, I am struck by how relevant his critique of Bookchin is almost 20 years hence, and his description of why certain forms of primitivisms should be taken seriously, and yet how wrong his prediction of the death or dwindling of certain kinds of anarchist leftism, which have seen several cycles of death and rebirth whereas most of the non-primitivism post-leftists outside of CrimethInc have disappeared or at least retreated from polemics. Indeed many of the critiques Black makes of leftism have been made by people who he has a distinctive distaste for: Marxists. That said, I feel we should focus on why someone should read this book now, and what is right about Black’s argument with Bookchin. There are some flaws and omissions in this book, which I do think we should address, but overall this book is more import than its polemic against Murray Bookchin’s Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism.
Some context is necessary for both why one would want to approach a polemic against Murray Bookchin and my own background in this debate. In 1996, I was still running ‘zines in a small town in Georgia in High School, having been politicized as a teen largely in the vein of Chomsky and Jello Biafra, I had been folllowing the debates in anarchism without truly understanding them. I feel about the two polemics and was turned off by the tone and ad hominems of both; however, the urgency and seemingly scientific of Bookchin appealed to me. I realized, however, that Bookchin’s developments were problematic overtime, and when I re-read him, the moralism overshadowed the talk of technological developments. Furthermore, while post-leftism in the main did not impress me, Bob Black’s arguments are stronger than I originally thought. Now, however, we have Ursula K. Le Guin writing prefaces to new editions of Bookchin’s work and experiments in Kurdistan by former Stalinist who have been attracted to Bookchin. Ironically, getting endorsements from the larger anarchist community post-Occupy, often somewhat uncritically. Such developments are not new in anarchism, which has as strained relationship to both Marxism and nationalism–often actding repealed and attracted. Platformists still predominantly use Maxist political economy, and anarchists from Bakunin to Shin Chae-ho have found racial nationalism harder to drop than the state. Bookchin definitely did not fall into the later, but grativated towards a highly managerial municipalism based off of technology and “direct” democracy.
While often hilarious, Black’s digs are sometimes irrelevant or personal, however, he does illustrate that the “development” of Bookchin’s thought had put him in direct contradiction with his earlier writings, and often in a way that mimicked that Marxists that Bookchin made his reputation criticizing. Now, Black can get lost chopping down trees and missing the forest in his glee on exposing inconsistencies in defense of his friends, but polemics from the 1970s conflicting with polemics from the 1990s of a man who is now dead over a decade can seem boring. Like many of Marx’s polemics agianst the other Hegelians, it is interesting for notes on both thinkers developments, but not directly relevant to anything currently. It does, however, make one wonder why so few people called Bookchin to account to explain his developments. An honest person may change his or her mind, but never without a proper accounting.
Black’s points, however, depart and develop at a larger critique of “leftism” from a point of view that acknowledges leftism was important in the development of anarchist thought. Now, I increasingly recoil from reifications of the political spectrum, but let’s assume here that Black is linking leftism to both liberal and socialist tendencies which are hostile to egoism. This is not entirely new, as Situationists even defined their socialist in terms of selfish interests and not on any moral grounds of collective benefit and self-sacrifice. Not only did they defend it, they laid at an argument which Black recapitulates:”someone who is in your movement not from selfish reasons cannot be trusted not to change their minds and randomly flutter from one ideology to another. Black, however, implies that class or identity positions alone due not ensure that interest even if there is real oppression and/or expliotation aimed at that identity.
Black’s other strong criticisms are not so much a defense of primitivism–which Black distances himself from without explicitly critiquing–but his pointing out that many of the assumptions of technological futurists and urbanists have a horrible track record. The prediction of labor saving technology to release us from labor has seemingly always increased labor. Black points out that it did lessen the responsibilities of toil, even in the case of domestic work. Instead of compensating women for their domestic labor, the labor-saving technologies led to being expected to both both domestic and wage labor. Black, who makes more than a few swipes at feminism which can make you wince a bit, does point out that he suspected that first forms of class oppression were actually sex-based and came from agricultural labor. Black points out that he expected this trend to continue, and the entire structure of the economy since 1996 seems to vindicate him on this point. Yes, perhaps, there COULD be a way around capitalist technology being used this way, but it does not follow that it necessarily will. Black points out that most of the readings of hunter gather societies given in Bookchin actually don’t match many anthropologists studies of them, and that many of the statistical arguments were misleading and speculative.
Black’s critique of communitarian municipalism and (semi) direct democracy are more developed elsewhere, but they are key here too. Black points out how exclusive and arbitrary Athenian democracy could be even by “progressive” standards. There is little new there, but his points about the development of familial dominance even in the Swiss Cantons as well as their abilities to be socially restrictive are key. Like many communists pointed out about syndicalism, involving more people in the production may mitigate some of the problems of work hierarchies, it by no means undoes it. The same logic applies to direct democracy and federated states.
Now, there are a few points that Black doesn’t address which are telling. He doesn’t give his critique of primitivism nor does he acknowledge how far John Zerzan would take his arguments. (To be fair to Black, I actually can’t remember if Zerzan had attacked all abstract thought as civilizational reification by 1996). He does not address that there are three ways to read primitivism: Primitivism as a necessity after an inevitable collapse (descriptive), primitivism as a vision to brought about by violence (normative), and primitivism as voluntary re-wilding (volunteeristic). The later was the view of Jacque Camatte, but Zerzan seems to shift between normative and descriptive through the year. Furthermore, Zerzan has recently made polemics against Sternite anarchism which do seem to render his claim as normative. Black then does not address the claims that normative primitivsim would require both a massive population die-off and a violence that would likely destory any foragable environs. This is a pretty big lapse, but it would only apply to one reading of primitivism. Bookchin slams all the arguments under mysticism as well, so its not really a point for Bookchin here entirely either. Furthermore, my classification schema is not used by primitivists themselves in any formal sense.
Lastly, one gets a feeling that Black was premature to announce the dominance of post-left trends in Leftism at the end. Who can blame someone from aspirational predicting as Marxists, anarchists, and other socialists have done this aspirationally since 1848. The social and historical context changed, making Black’s criticisms relevant again but, at least for now, leaving a lot of post-left anarchy in low print number books and the internet archive. This is not Black’s fault, although Black did not write many books for many, many years after this polemic. He has recently returned to Bookchin himself writing a 400-page analysis of Bookchin’s entire oeuvre. Furthermore, most of the writing on this has gone in the minutiae of anarchist gossip: recriminations and denouncements far beyond what either Black or Bookchin engaged in litter the reviews. While parts of this book are flawed, it is a very provocative book in a way that is smarter than it seems. Leftists, Bookchinites, and even various kinds of Marxists would do well to deal with its arguments (and not the personalities that produced the debate.)