Archive for September, 2010

‘The Origins of Primitivism’ set (1977-1988)

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.

(If you are new to Radical Archives, we recommend you look at the index of texts posted, and the about statement, which describes the site’s topic interests.)

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.

We hope in the near future to make available a number of related works, including works by primitivist John Moore, Sam Dolgoff’s essay on technology, as well as other works of Bob Brubaker.


Introduction to ‘The Origins of Primitivism’ Set by David Watson (2010)

The First Primitivist Essay: “Gary Snyder Asks: Poetry or Machines? Back to the Stone Age” (1977)

“Technology & the State: An Introduction” (1978)

“FE Criticized and Our Response” (1978)

“On Having Nothing to Say” (1979)

“Searching for the Culprit” (1979)

“Against Civilization: Introduction to Russell Means” (1980)

Introduction to ‘Fifth Estate’ #306 (1981)

“Against the Megamachine” by David Watson (1981-1985/1997)

“Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism” by George Bradford (1981)

“Community, Primitive Society and the State” by Bob Brubaker (1981)

“Defeated Spirit?”, letter from John Zerzan to ‘Fifth Estate’ (1981)

Marcus Graham on ‘Fifth Estate’, Anarchism, Technology & Bookchin (1981)

“More Debate on Technology: Does FE View Mean ‘War or Big Brother?’”, letter from Chris Dugan and reply from John Zerzan  (1982)

“Confronting the Enemy: A Response on Time” by George Bradford (1983)

Language: John Zerzan on George Bradford on John Zerzan (1984)

Introduction to John Zerzan’s “Agriculture” essay, by E.B. Maple (1988)

David Watson: Introduction to the Origins of Primitivism Set (2010)

One thing I would say and may have already said in my books Beyond Bookchin and Against the Megamachine and my essay “Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the ‘Ideological Vortex’: Farewell to All That” is that I am not opposed at all to some kind of reasoned primitivism. I just distrust all “isms,” and in the case of much of self-proclaimed anarcho-primitivism, the insights of a primitivist view (for example, to be found in Stanley Diamond’s In Search of the Primitive, The Old Ways, much anthropological literature, and the writings and testimonies of native peoples) has become a simplistic, dogmatic, and sometimes fascistic response to problems that demand instead our humanity, compassion, and humility.

I admire so-called primitive or original and tribal societies and believe they offer profound answers to what it means to be human, particularly in the present crisis in world industrial capitalist civilization. They don’t have all the answers, and there is no way they can be fully reproduced, but we need to pay attention to all our ancestors, and to the great traditions – primitive, archaic, and modern – in our evolutionary experience. I think Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild one of the most powerful expressions of respect for primitive and archaic traditions, and search for a synthesis of ancient and modern, today, and I recommend it emphatically for its wisdom, beautiful writing, erudition, sense of humor, humility, and humanity.

I must confess that I am pessimistic about our capacity to save ourselves and the complex web of planetary life we know with any insight or political outlook, but I don’t see any reason to give up, and I admire and try to find ways to support those who continue to seek answers and to fight back. Caring about and responding to the crisis in a humane way is one of the few things remaining that keep us human.

I may look at this later and want to modify (or clarify) what and how I am saying this, but it is largely how I have felt about these matters since the days when we were first exploring and debating these ideas. I am grateful to Dylan Smith and Radical Archives and everyone else who did the hard work to make these texts available.

David Watson,
September 2010

E.B. Maple: Introduction to John Zerzan’s “Agriculture” essay (1988)

E.B. Maple

Almost all John Zerzan essays feature accompanying introductions in which the word most frequently used to describe his method and conclusions is “provocative” (see, for instance, Anarchy, Summer 1987). Some may think this only an ugly little term meant to distance a publication from the wild assertions that John so often makes in his writings (“wild”, by the way, is a word which I know he will not take as a pejorative). Realistically though, provocative accurately describes what is the common reaction to reading a Zerzan article – you are provoked, to anger or to thought.

Anger because he states everything with such a sense of certitude even when it does not seem entirely plausible to do so, i.e. liberation is impossible without the dissolution of agriculture, language is the original separation, etc. Indeed, a web of these certainties have come to form a chinese puzzle foundation for his view of alienation and domination leaving his partisans and detractors arguing about how well it all hangs together. John sees the human collapse from our original paradisial state beginning when language, time, number and art entered human consciousness which then formed the basis of agriculture, itself the institutionalization of those earlier forms of separation.

But John provokes anger also because he steps on toes – he says you can’t hide from the leviathan of civilization with the expressiveness of words or the exquisiteness of art, for they are part of the body of leviathan.

However, whether one agrees with his assertions or not, John also provokes his readers to think; witness the substantive replies which have appeared in these pages alongside his previous essays (see FEs, Summer 1983, “Time, the First Lie of Social Life;” Fall 1983, “Responses on Time;” Winter 1984, “Language – Origin and Meaning;” Summer 1985, “Number – Its Origin and Evolution;” and Fall 1986 “The Case Against Art” available from us at 75¢ each). He means to examine everything, but only on his terms – a sometimes maddening methodology of formulaic speculation and eclecticism; one that almost forces those who resist his conclusions to begin their own work on the subject under question.

John will allow nothing of this world to be taken for granted nor to be part of a new one, producing a revolutionary nihilism which many find hard to swallow. His vision in a world in which language, art, time, number and agriculture have disappeared led one friend who read his manuscript to charge that “Zerzan wants to return to the womb.” Maybe so, but it would be back to the womb of the planet in a distant epoch where perhaps an earlier species of humans communicated intuitively, gratification was instantaneous, and joy the character of existence – this before we bit into the apple of knowledge and began our descent into the “terror of history,” as Frederick Turner puts it.

John’s desire to shed the pain of modern consciousness and all of its institutions is understandable in a frightening and miserable world, but his approach in writing has led some to question whether it is critical theory they are confronting or sheer, unrealizable utopianism and psychic escapism. I am not sure whether such a distinction has to be made at a point where all we have to sustain ourselves is the stuff of our dreams. The value of John’s ongoing investigations is contained within his intransigent insistence that nothing be free of critical examination, even if it is those qualities that some would contend make us human (we should remember that marxists insist that it is work which separates us from the animals). His fear that our desires will be corralled into a blind canyon by what society dictates as possible at this time is justifiable. When an authentic revolutionary movement is created, perhaps than it will then begin to shape what a new world will look like, but at this point no speculation should be spurned.

In many ways, as he indicates, John is not telling a new story in his present essay. The era of the dawn of agriculture has always been seen by historians as the epochal watershed which produced the basis for civilization. Points of departure come over the affirmation of the Neolithic Age by bourgeois and marxist theorists (who view it within their mystified social schema as a “progressive stage” of history) and those who see it as John does, as a defeat for humanity which left its nomadic and wild status for one of sedentary domination. This newspaper, as well, has long affirmed the validity of hunter-gatherer society as one in which humans were better able to act out a balanced relationship to nature and each other than in state societies which have followed.

Still, even among those who share a common hatred for this society and the desire for a new one some take issue with John’s conclusions and with some of his individual contentions; they will have their say in the next issue.

In the meantime, we should realize that while reading this essay that all of the social sciences are highly ideologized with archeology perhaps being the foremost among them due to the scantiness and ambiguity of available evidence. For instance, the right-wing paleontologist Adrey could find a crushed skull and contend from that the confirmation of the Hobbsian dictum that life before the state was “nasty, brutish and short.” However, his findings are also used contradictorily to support the notion that modern violence –particular interstate violence­ – is an extension of an inherent human quality.

Similarly, the more liberal Leakeys discovered Paleolithic era burial sites and concluded that prehistory was based on cooperative and caring values with the implication that it has been the modern world which has twisted basic human traits, and the species retains the capacity to return to them. Our acceptance of one interpretation or another depends mostly on our view of contemporary society, which is why I like the Leakey story better than Adrey’s. So, while reading what follows, perhaps think, what story do you want to be told, and maybe it will provoke you to act in terms of it.

– E.B. Maple

= = =

from Fifth Estate #329 (vol. 23, no. 2), Summer 1988, p 17.

Language: John Zerzan on George Bradford on John Zerzan (1984)

Language I

Dear FE,

Neither the simple abuse by Ratticus nor the extended commentary by George Bradford seemed to me to engage the two most basic points or arguments of “Language: Origin and Meaning” (Winter ’84), namely that language is the model of ideology and that it derives from earliest division of labor. Thus they rejected the piece while failing to deal with the essentials referred to by its title, an odd tack possibly reflecting on my craftsmanship as its author.

To evoke the world as it encountered what are perhaps the original viruses of alienation (time, language) and to ask whether they are inevitable is to wonder whether we can supersede a condition in which anguish and repression have been with us so very long.

The old question, ‘where did we go wrong?’ challenges us to aim our critical inquiry far enough back, into prehistory. If part of the progression is something like time, language, art, myth, religion, private property, the state, can we refuse only the latter two or three of these inventions and find this adequate to solve the long, deepening neurosis called civilization?

The madness of today and our desperation within it may be helping us to see how profound the sickness has been, the easier perhaps to raise questions as to how deep the healing must go.

John Zerzan,
Eugene, OR

= = =

letter to Fifth Estate #316 (v19, #1), spring 1984, p 2.

George Bradford: “Confronting the Enemy: A Response on Time” (1983)


The following article by George Bradford continues the discussion of time and alienation initiated by John Zerzan in his article “Beginning of Time, End of Time,” which appeared in the Summer 1983 FE.

A project such as ours, based as it is on our mutual desire to abolish technological civilization, capital and domination, has to eventually take up the problem of time. All of us know with a visceral vengeance the horrid role of the clock in our lives. We don’t have to be convinced: we measure out our precious, limited im/mortality against the days, the hours and minutes of captive time. So it was with great sympathy that I began John Zerzan’s ambitious essay on time. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was dampened significantly by what I think were flaws not only in the form but in the intention or trajectory of the piece.

John felt the need, it seems, to sledgehammer his readers with deluge of ambiguous and at times downright dubious quotations in order to defend a thesis which he had already set out to prove no matter what. Bob Brubaker, in the Summer 1983 issue of the FE, points out a number of such problems with citations, and having had the privilege of seeing the footnotes, I would concur. One also gets the eerie sensation that for all its “anti-time” spirit, the article follows a strangely linear and incremental development – the whole world from the Book of Genesis and the Fall into an eschatology of the apocalyptic dissolution of time (followed by paradise) – which forces the entire human universe from prehistory onward into a procrustean apparatus built around a single element. Hence it becomes “not inconceivable,” for example, that even the Bubonic Plagues of the mid-14th century were “in a sense a massive, visceral reaction to the attack of modern time”! (Of course, it’s obvious in this one extravagant case that a morbid time sense accompanied the plagues – evidenced by chilling protests against death in poetry and in the danses macabres. We tend to think of time when we think of death. But I plan to return to this question later.)

Perhaps we should all follow Brubaker’s advice to consider the article an impressionistic survey of sorts, get the footnotes and go over for ourselves the fascinating material that Zerzan has collated. And though I fully agree with Brubaker’s criticism, I would like to add my own two cents (or two minutes if you like) to the discussion. The mass of quotes and the occasional vagueness of their presentation make it impossible to respond to everything, but I should like to focus on four major areas which I think are problematic.

Continue reading ‘George Bradford: “Confronting the Enemy: A Response on Time” (1983)’

Chris Dugan & John Zerzan: “More Debate on Technology: Does FE View Mean ‘War or Big Brother?'” (1982)



Dear Fifth Estate:

The cover graphic of the mushroom cloud with the word WAR! in seven centimeter lettering across the front struck me as highly appropriate for the Fifth Estate (See FE Nov. 19, 1981). It would seem to me that a worldwide nuclear war would surely be a progressive step towards “Paleolithic Liberation.” In all your polemics against technology and in your point by point rebuttals to pro-tech arguments you never seem to deal with the sort of question I am inclined to raise. Namely, how do you expect 4 billion people to sustain themselves on the planet in a hunter gatherer mode of production?

The population of the planet in paleolithic times was a mere fraction of one percent of the present population. This was true for a reason; human beings needed to live within the carrying capacity of the environment. There is an optimal level in the ratio of the number of human beings to a given ecosystem for a given mode of production. I would suggest that the development of agriculture, the state, classes and technology has been a long term process of intensification of production in response to rising population pressures. With each new innovation (i.e. semi-nomadic agriculture to sedentary rainfall agriculture to irrigation agriculture, etc.) the carrying capacity of the environment is increased making further population expansion possible which leads to eventual depletions and pressure towards still more intensified production strategies.

With the development of newer modes of production for larger populations there have been various trade-offs. These have included the development of despotic bureaucracies such as the techno-managerial elite which solidified itself permanently as a class in China around 500 BC in control of the elaborate irrigation system which developed there in response to the food demands of a rising population. Although there have been “revolutions” and conquests by foreign invaders throughout China’s history, the region has always been ruled by a bureaucratic ruling class and continues to this day. Other trade-offs have included longer working hours and greater and greater degrees of alienation.

The Fifth Estate makes its strongest theoretical contributions in its analysis of alienation, dehumanized mechanized labor and the techno-wasteland culture. I find myself agreeing with practically all of your arguments while agreeing with virtually none of your conclusions. There can be no denying the role that technology, especially centralized heavy industrial production, has had in degrading the spontaneity and creativity of the human spirit in favor of a homogenized, docile workforce of obedient order-takers. To assert that this is an inevitable result of technology in any form misses the point entirely, though.

The factory as a force for social control did not develop though some sort of process inherent in technology itself, it was developed deliberately by capitalists in their efforts to secure greater control over the workforce. I would direct your attention to John Zerzan’s “Industrialization and Domestication (see FE April 1976) for a closer look at the late 18th and early 19th century class struggles I am referring to. The modern factory was developed, in part, as a weapon of the capitalist class in the class struggle.

Virtually all technology in history has developed within a class matrix of one sort or another. Yet you seem to regard technology as being an independent force with an intrinsic mad logic all its own and unconnected to any sort of class analysis. I am not arguing that technology in its present form will be liberating and non-alienating if only the “good guys” take it over from the “bad guys.” An assembly line will always be alienating to some degree, even if it is under total workers’ control.

I see three major directions in which our species can go. The first is towards the continually expanding techno-managerial Orwellian computer Mega-state. This would involve greater and greater interlocks amongst the planet’s ruling elites, greater control over the lives and thoughts of individuals, and a steady erosion of individual liberty, free thought and free expression.

The second likely direction is mass self-destruction through a nuclear war or an eco-catastrophe. This second course would favor the FE’s goals, in my view, as it would drastically reduce the population pressures of the human species for obvious reasons. The question of how a reduced human population could live in a paleolithic mode of production and have enough for everyone to eat remains only partially answered at best.

The third choice which our species has is towards an ecologically sound, decentralized humanistic technology. There is simply no other way to support the basic needs of 4 billion people without some forms of technology or a massacre. If you can prove me wrong, please do so and I will eat my typewriter. That’s a promise!

Population control is going to be essential one way or the other. The techno-Megastate will accomplish this through war, genocide, family planning by government decree, and through forced sterilization of “undesirables.” The alternative is voluntary, rational population control by a cooperative planet-wide confederation of ecologically-based autonomous communities. The alternatives are Big Brother or the mushroom cloud on the cover of FE (or both!).

In Support of Your Paper
(even though we disagree).
Chris Dugan
The League for Evolutionary Anarchism & Freedom
Box 18488
Denver CO 80218

John Zerzan responds: To see class society as the “response to rising population pressures” is to view it as a natural, inevitable outcome and neglect the tragic struggle of communal life against its domination. For an anarchist, I would have thought Kropotkin’s stress on mutual aid and the perfectibility of society would be more pertinent to the question of population than Hobbes and Malthus, who seem larger influences and who bolstered bourgeois ideology by elevating the scarcity of resources and proclaiming the constancy of the ethical limitations of humanity.

Similarly, your prescription of a “planet-wide confederation” to somehow control population on a “voluntary, rational” basis seems to me way off for one who, presumably, desires a free, unmediated condition of life. I would think that either people will apprehend and express the dimensions of anarchy directly or they will need the lingering authority of global bureaux. Not both.

In the matter of technology, here also a couple of unsound notions. You cite my “Industrialism & Domestication” as a corrective to the idea, allegedly the Fifth Estate’s, that technology is independent of the social and political framework in which it is found. Yet the FE was the original publisher of this essay and I’ve seen no evidence that the paper’s staff has ever disputed the article’s thesis that a designed social control intentionality was the hallmark of factory-system technology.

On the other hand, there has been a willingness in the FE to consider the sense in which present and future technology tend toward a life of their own. Here there has been an effort to critically assess the extent to which Jacques Ellul is correct that technology is becoming itself an independent system dominating society.

Concerning the definition of technology, or rather the point at which “technology” becomes a destructive influence, here I think you have also misread the FE.

Recent anthropology (e.g. Marshall Sahlins, R.B. Lee) has completely reversed the view that original, hunter-gatherer life was nasty, short and brutish, in favor of recognizing in the Stone Age the original affluent society, in which work was neither valued in itself or needed in great amounts and in which the spirit of the gift dominated. But as I see it, the attention accorded this momentous discovery and its implications has not meant that a foraging way of life is an exact formula promoted to end the profound alienation of humanity from itself and nature. Eschewing blueprints, the FE has mainly tried to show that the myths of progress have concealed much about our origins, and has also tried to see through to the nature of the technology that now envelops us.

I tend to think the line should be drawn between tools and machines. It is here that division of labor, with its diminution of the individual, begins, and its consequence, the arrival of the effective power of specialists. The devitalization and depersonalization so vivid today perhaps finds its axial point back at the distinction between tools and machines. Langdon Winner, in his Autonomous Technology, put it this way: “One can seek the high levels of productivity that modern technological systems bring. One can also seek the founding of a communal life in which the division of labor, social hierarchy, and political domination are eradicated. But can one in any realistic terms have both? I am convinced that the answer to this question is a firm ‘no.'”

Of course, we are meant to believe that we would all die if technology were dismantled. We are so steeped in it that the simple idea of growing our own food is not what springs to mind but rather the artificial problem of how to “coordinate” its “production.” Instead of the notion of natural ways of birth control, related to the condition of being one with our own bodies, there is an unthinking assumption of factories that produce surgical steel, plastics and other dependency-maintaining substances. Today’s growing distrust of high technology, however, and the “surprising” recent movement, as noted in 1980 census analysis, away from the cities to small towns and rural areas are two phenomena that point away from massified, complex technology.

But if one continues to think in terms of “production,” and sees the assembly line as merely alienating “to some degree,” then the essential point of the FE’s quest for the bedrock of freedom is being missed.

= = =

from Fifth Estate #309 (vol. 17, no. 2), June 19, 1982, p 2.

Marcus Graham on ‘Fifth Estate’, Anarchism, Technology & Bookchin (1981)

FE View Not New. . .

To the Fifth Estate:

The “Against the Megamachine” article in the July 1980 Fifth Estate ought to influence pro-machine marxists, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists in realizing the Frankenstein that the scientists have created.

George Bradford’s essay, “On Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism,” in particular deals with this phrase most effectively. Bradford correctly points out that although anarchists are opposed to “authoritarian Marxism,” they have failed to realize what the technological megamachine implies.

Nevertheless, not all anarchists have followed Peter Kropotkin’s pro-machine position. In the weekly anarchist “Road to Freedom” (1924-1939), in an article entitled “Man’s Liberation,” appearing July 1925, this writer stated in part: “Man created machines. Machines that were to lessen man’s toil. But alas! The machine has increased the wealth of the idlers and brought misery to the many… .What is even worse, the machine has destroyed man’s joy of artisan creation. Man merely became a spook of the very machine that he himself created.”

I think the future will prove that Kropotkin, from an anarchist point of view, has, in accepting thus the machine, made one of the greatest errors. Such an attitude was perfectly logical for the Marxian school of thought, but certainly not for the anarchist. In reality, man will never be able to master the machine without the sacrifice of endangering human life.

Kropotkin’s pro-machine position received a new impetus when Murray Bookchin came out in favor of the machine under the alluring title Toward a Liberatory Technology in “Anarchos” issues 2 & 3, 1968-69. In a reply, “Questioning the Premises” of Bookchin which appeared in the October 1971 issue of the Match! of Tucson, Arizona, I wrote: “Technology rests on the basic principle of centralized authority, as its technique shows in every move that it makes. Anarchism, on the other hand, rests on the very opposite basic principle of decentralization. Whether by intent or not, Bookchin is correct when using the words ‘socialist ideal,’ since Marxism fits into technology as into a perfect glove. But when he implies that technology is related or conducive to the building of an Anarchist society, he is totally wrong.”

It is indeed good to find Bookchin changing his position by now as quoted by Bradford in his article.

Last but not least, the Fifth Estate, although not calling itself an anarchist publication, is nevertheless considered as such by “The Anarchist Review” of England, anarchist groups and individuals who materially support it ­– for the reason of its most consistent anti-authoritarian reaction towards every political and social question.

Marcus Graham
Los Gatos CA

= = =

from Fifth Estate #307 (vol. 15. no. 6), Nov. 19, 1981,  p 2.