Murray Bookchin: anarchism is “simply not a social theory” (2002)

“By the same token, anarchism – which, I believe, represents in its authentic form a highly individualistic outlook that fosters a radically unfettered lifestyle, often as a substitute for mass action – is far better suited to articulate a Proudhonian single-family peasant and craft world than a modern urban and industrial environment. I myself once used this political label, but further thought has obliged me to conclude that, its often-refreshing aphorisms and insights notwithstanding, it is simply not a social theory. Its foremost theorists celebrate its seeming openness to eclecticism and the liberatory effects of “paradox” or even “contradiction,” to use Proudhonian hyperbole. Accordingly, and without prejudice to the earnestness of many anarchistic practices, a case can made that many of the ideas of social and economic reconstruction that in the past have been advanced in the name of “anarchy” were often drawn from Marxism (including my own concept of “post-scarcity,” which understandably infuriated many anarchists who read my essays on the subject). Regrettably, the use of socialistic terms has often prevented anarchists from telling us or even understanding clearly what they are: individualists whose concepts of autonomy originate in a strong commitment to personal liberty rather than to social freedom, or socialists committed to a structured, institutionalized, and responsible form of social organization. Anarchism’s idea of self-regulation (auto-nomos) led to a radical celebration of Nietzsche’s all-absorbing will. Indeed the history of this “ideology” is peppered with idiosyncratic acts of defiance that verge on the eccentric, which not surprisingly have attracted many young people and aesthetes.

In fact anarchism represents the most extreme formulation of liberalism’s ideology of unfettered autonomy, culminating in a celebration of heroic acts of defiance of the state. Anarchism’s mythos of self-regulation (auto nomos) – the radical assertion of the individual over or even against society and the personalistic absence of responsibility for the collective welfare – leads to a radical affirmation of the all-powerful will so central to Nietzsche’s ideological peregrinations. Some self-professed anarchists have even denounced mass social action as futile and alien to their private concerns and made a fetish of what the Spanish anarchists called grupismo, a small-group mode of action that is highly personal rather than social.”


from “The Communalist Project” which is available online here, where it indicates that the essay was first published in Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society, 2 (November 2002).



Obviously this piece belongs to Bookchin’s post-anarchist Communalist period. Here, as with the works of many politically-engaged intellectuals, one should be sure to untangle the author’s perceptive historical and philosophical insights from their polemics.

3 Responses to “Murray Bookchin: anarchism is “simply not a social theory” (2002)”

  1. 1 Robert Graham January 15, 2012 at 6:37 am

    Bookchin’s analysis of anarchism after he renounced anarchism is historically inaccurate and philosophically flawed. The idea that anarchism is liberalism gone made is untenable. The vast majority of anarchists have considered themselves socialists, not Nietzschean individualists. It’s not hard to find in Bookchin’s own anarchist writings refutations of every single claim he made in this article. John Clark’s essay, “Bridging the Unbridgeable Chasm: On Bookchin’s Critique of the Anarchist Tradition,” at, does a good job dissecting Bookchin’s “critique” of anarchism.

  2. 2 radicalarchives January 15, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    true, but you also seem to imply that liberalism = Nietzschean individualism, which could not be further from the truth, either.

    • 3 Robert Graham January 22, 2012 at 4:54 am

      Sorry, but it’s Bookchin who conflated the two, in the very quote set forth above, when he writes that anarchists are “individualists whose concepts of autonomy originate in a strong commitment to personal liberty,” which is to say that anarchists are extreme liberals (although it wasn’t Bookchin who described anarchism as “liberalism gone mad”). Bookchin then takes a leap, claiming that anarchist/liberal notions of autonomy lead to “a radical celebration of Nietzsche’s all-absorbing will.” In other words, anarchism/liberalism = Nietzschean individualism (Bookchin’s formulation, not mine). Anyone who has read Bakunin would see that he developed a critique of Kantian liberalism, which he argued was based on abstract notions of the self and individual autonomy (a critique that Bookchin used to refer to, before he rejected anarchism; anyone familiar with anarchist history, as Bookchin claimed to be, would know that Bakunin’s critique of liberalism was far more influential among anarchists than the liberalism which Bakunin rejected, or the Nietzcshean individualism which came later, but which Bookchin conflates in the very passage set forth above).

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