RADICAL ARCHIVES is happy to finally present our ‘Origins of Primitivism’ set. It consists of 16 documents related to the development of contemporary primitivist thought, which were first printed in Fifth Estate between 1977 and 1988. All of these documents (listed at bottom) are available online for the first time.
Additionally, David Watson has contributed a short introduction and reflection on these texts for the occasion of putting them online; it is available here.
The most important of the these texts is David Watson’s “Against the Megamachine” (originally published in 1981), which outlines his distinct version of primitivism. Watson renounced ideological primitivism with 1997’s “Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the ‘Ideological Vortex': Farewell to All That”, two years before the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO. Partly because of Watson’s exit from the discourse, Zerzan’s version (which actually had been developed later) became synonymous with the concept “anarcho-primitivism”.
Watson’s essay is the only document of this set which was previously in print; it is available as the title essay of the Autonomedia book Against the Megamachine: Essays on Empire and Its Discontents. Prior to this, the other texts were only accessible in specialized archival holdings.
Also of importance is “Confronting the Enemy: A Response on Time”, which is a long critique of Zerzan’s article “Beginning of Time, End of Time” (which was the first of his five “origins” essays). Written under Watson’s pen name “George Bradford”, this much-overlooked critique summarizes what are the basic objections to Zerzan’s view from a sympathetic perspective: that the notion of purely unalienated being (and along with it, the abolition of agriculture) is a misguided – and impossible – approach to these issues. Paralleling many discussions within the Western Marxist and Existentialist milieu (especially regarding Georg Lukács’s early work on reification), Watson argues that separation is something intrinsic to human nature, and cannot be seen as ‘outside’ of our own human existence. To abolish separation is to return to the womb or ascend into heaven.
The third essay of special importance is Bob Brubaker’s “Community, Society and the State”. Brubaker was a Fifth Estate writer who was involved in the magazine’s dialogue as primitivism was developed. Brubaker’s work has been largely forgotten.
The fourth essay of special importance is Fifth Estate‘s 1977 review of Gary Snyder’s The Old Ways, Six Essays. Steve Millett has identified this as the first complete statement of a primitivist perspective to appear in Fifth Estate.
Last, a letter from Marcus Graham, who had edited the anarchist magazine MAN! in the 1930s, shows the issues Fifth Estate was grappling with around technology, organization, etc. had been long-standing discussions in the anarchist milieu, well back into the classical era.
By making these documents available online, hopefully a richer understanding of the different strains of primitivism will result, as well as a constructive and critical dialogue regarding this intellectual and political current. Important questions were asked by the founders of primitivism, including: critiques of political organization, spontaneity and resistance; the role of technology and the question of its autonomy; and basic ontological questions about civilization, alienation and environmental domination. With the partial exception of insurrectionism, these questions have largely been shelved by the post-Seattle anglophone anti-authoritarian milieu.
While Radical Archives is neither “primitivist” nor “anti-civ”, our position is that these questions have not been answered by Murray Bookchin’s brand of social ecology, John Zerzan’s version of primitivism, or any version of ‘green syndicalism’.
It is partly for this reason, and partly out of interest in anarchist intellectual history, that we are returning to the time in which these questions were being actively grappled with in the anti-authoritarian milieu.
Radical Archives would like to thank Steve Millet for pointing out many of these works in his dissertation, as well as to David Watson and Peter Werbe for their help in identifying who wrote many of these articles. We would also like to give special thanks to Dylan Smith for the many hours he spent transcribing all of these works; without his labor, none of this would be possible.
THE ORIGINS OF PRIMITIVISM SET