Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Beyond anarchism (2015)

Book Review from the December 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The Next Revolution', by Murray Bookchin. Verso. 2015.

Murray Bookchin was among the strongest of figures to come out of twentieth century American radicalism. As well as being known for the establishment of ‘social ecology’ (a criticism of social problems coupled with ecological concerns) he also developed a political programme known as ‘libertarian municipalism’ which he saw as a method for getting from our present society of minority control and environmental destruction to a new rational and ecological society of mass democratic control.

The basic building block of libertarian municipalism is the community or neighbourhood assembly, face to face meetings where citizens meet to discuss and vote on the issues of the day. These assemblies elect mandated and recallable delegates who then link with other assemblies forming a confederated council, a 'community of communities'. The difference between this form of delegate democracy and our current form of representative democracy is that in a representative democracy power is given wholesale to the representative who then is free to act on their own initiative; in a delegate democracy the initiative is set by the electing body and the delegate can be recalled at any time should the electing body feel that their mandate is not being met, thus power remains at the base.

Bookchin saw the setting up of such assemblies as a task that could be initiated now, even if the only functions they could have initially were moral ones. He also saw that, as a means for extending the democratic legitimacy and for the further confederalisation of these bodies, it would be necessary to elect town and city councillors sympathetic to the cause. This position eventually led to Bookchin making a break with his previously held anarchism. Bookchin criticised the anarchists for holding a false theory on the nature of power. Instead of seeking to abolish power, which Bookchin thought was impossible as it is always a feature of political and social life, the purpose of an emancipatory politics should be to ensure that power is in the hands of masses and is dispersed equally among them. Bookchin used the classic example of Barcelona in July 1936 to illustrate this point. The defeat of the military coup meant that the CNT (an anarcho-syndicalist union) and its armed militias were now the only real power in the city. Despite this, and because of their anarchist ideology, the CNT refused to enter the government and to exercise the political power that they already had, thus leaving the door open for the eventual Stalinist take over. By refusing to take power, Bookchin argues, the anarchists did not destroy power but merely transferred it into the hands of their enemies. While the CNT did hold power in the factories and workplaces a vast swathe of real governmental power, from the administration of military affairs and the overseeing of justice, was left in control of the liberals and Stalinists who would later use this power to reverse the gains of the July victory.

Through the gradual building up of the power and spread of assemblies Bookchin hoped that libertarian municipalism could lead to a situation of dual power where the authority of the assemblies would eventually challenge that of the state. This brings us to our criticisms. Bookchin held that there was a distinction between the statecraft of professional politicians as the administrators of the governmental machine and politics proper as practised by free citizens engaging in the direct democracy of their self-managed communities. Whilst this distinction may be fair to a certain extent the practical conclusions that Bookchin drew from this do not seem to be very cogent. Bookchin thought that, in order to avoid becoming agents of the state, councillors standing in favour of libertarian municipalism should only stand for posts in local elections. If the majority of the population were in favour of libertarian municipalism then they would be able to use their votes to elect delegates at all levels of the state and so realise their programme that way. Failure to exercise political power at all levels would have the result of handing power to their opponents. Despite his criticism Bookchin repeats the mistake of the Spanish anarchists.

Moreover, Bookchin thought that councillors favourable to libertarian municipalism should stand on a typical reformist programme with its 'minimal' and 'maximum' demands. We would hold that it is this, rather than the supposed principle of 'power corrupts', that led to the 'revolutionary' parties of the past degenerating into nothing more than mere administrators of the existing order. Once elected on a platform of short term reforms it is these that come to take precedence over any 'maximum' long term revolutionary goals which fade away permanently into the background. In order to stay in power the party has to appease those who voted it in on a reformist platform.

In recent years the ideas of Bookchin have found an unlikely testing ground in Rojova, a semi-autonomous Kurdish area in north eastern Syria. Abdullah Öcalan, a former Leninist and imprisoned leader of the PKK, came across the works of Bookchin whilst in prison and saw their potential for organising the Kurds, a people without a state.

As an introduction to Bookchin's thought this book is not a bad place to start but as this is a collection of articles republished from various sources there is a certain amount of repetition of ideas and themes. Despite some significant differences there is much that the Socialist Party would agree with and find of use.

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