TOWARD A LIBERTARIAN SOCIALISM

by Chris Faatz (cfaatz@teleport.com)

"By 'socialism' I mean a classless society in which the State has disappeared, production is cooperative, and no man [sic] has political or economic power over another. The touchstone would be the extent to which each individual could develop his [or her] own talents and personality." --Dwight Macdonald, _The Root is Man_ (1946)
At one point in the not-so distant past, a friend and I were discussing certain people--Victor Serge, Gustav Landauer, Daniel Guerin--who attempted to combine the liberatory vision of social anarchism with the rigorous analytical method of Marxism in a libertarian marxist, or libertarian socialist form. While the discussion, at that time, didn't really progress too far, it hardly died altogether, and has been festering in the back of my mind ever since.

Recently, the whole issue was brought vividly vack to life in my reading of social ecologist Murray Bookchin's book _Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism_, a book which quite effectively--if somewhat vitriolically--demolishes the "anarcho- primitivism" and anti-rationalism of large elements of the anarchist milieu (at least in North America: see the paper "Fifth Estate," or the works of the likes of John Zerzan and Hakim Bey for illustrations of this current). As Bookchin describes it, "lifestyle anarchism" emphasizes "personal insurrection rather than general revolution... as opposed to social anarchism, with its roots in historicism, the social matrix of individuality, and its commitment to a rational society."

Social anarchism, on the other hand, is summarized as "heir to the Enlightenment tradition, with due regard to that tradition's limits and incompleteness. Depending on how it defines reason, social anarchism celebrates the thinking human mind without in any way denying passion, ecstasy, imagination, play, and art. Yet rather than reify them into hazy categories [as lifestyle anarchists are, according to Bookchin, prone to do--CF], it tries to incorporate them into everyday life. It is committed to rationality while opposing the rationalization of experience; to technology, while opposing the 'mega- machine;' to social institutionalization, while opposing class rule and hierarchy; to a genuine politics based on the confederal coordination of municipalities or communes by the people in face-to-face democracy, while opposing parliamentarism and the state."

This, as I see it, and as Bookchin makes clear in the second essay in this book, "The Left that Was: A Personal Reflection," a compelling *socialist* vision, albeit of a very specific type, as well. Indeed, throughout this little book the argument is implicit (and, on occasion, explicit) that, in the end, there's very little difference between a coherent social anarchist and libertarian socialist vision--it's all just a matter of words.

Refreshingly enough, in this age of relentless analysis and little prescription, Bookchin goes on to offer a libertarian left *program* around which such a rational, humanistic, pluralistic socialist project could--and might--cohere. Bookchin emphasizes four points as central to such a program: confederal forms (a commune of communes, as he puts it at another point); opposition to statism, class oppression, and hierarchical forms of social organization; a belief in direct democracy; and what I can only delightedly call "the vision thing," i.e., a picture, however fuzzy, of what a libertarian society might look like. He then goes on to insist that:

The most imporant issue that left-libertarianism--libertarian socialism no less than anarchism--faces today is: What will it *do* with these four powerful tenets? How will we give them social *form* and *content*? In what *ways* and by what *means* will we render them relevant to our time and bring them to the service of an organized popular movement for empowerment and freedom?
These are all interesting and challenging questions, and for those of us who have emerged from the hermetically-sealed world of those parts of the left that Bookchin has little patience with, they are perhaps the most challenging of all the issues he raised. Of course, to be fair, one must recognize that those who adhere to some form of Leninism or social democracy would find this program, and the resulting questions, noxious, petty-bourgeois nostrums at best, downright reactionary utopian misleadership at worst.

But, we live in a world where time-hallowed assumptions are changing, where orthodoxies of all sorts are fraying in the face of never-before imagined realities, and where serious people are seriously examining the history and trajectory of movement(s) for social change--and for revolution. In the context of the environmental crisis, such a vision of decentralization and direct, grassroots democracy makes more than a little sense. In an age of particularistic obsessions on large parts of the left, whether it be with race, gender, or sexuality, the universalist message virtually cries out to be heard. And, in the post-Bolshevik era, the focus on the centrality of the individual and of a radical localism is, at the very least, reassuring, if not downright inspiring. At least in my heart and mind, the cogent libertarian thrust of Bookchin's argument cuts right to the bone.

Indeed, there's something of the prophetic in Bookchin's assertions. His ideal society is one that is compelling, beautifuly, and starkly and eminently human and humanizing. It's something that's far out there on the horizon--and just beyond our grasp, as he's convincingly argued in such earlier works as _Post-Scarcity Anarchism_. And, let's face it: prophets don't wait for reality to catch up with them before they start bellowing from the mountaintops--at least not when the reality is as sordid as the one that has today so effectively shackled the popular mind, and is winding its poisonous course across the face of our planet.

* * *

In the book's second essay, Bookchin relates his views of "how the left once was," highlighting the pluses of the pre-Bolshevik experience, and emphasizing, once again, that "vision thing." He stresses confederation, anti-militarism (as opposed to pacifism), internationalism (Lenin's "opportunistic" kowtowing to the nationalist aspirations of his period, in Bookchin's mind, helped lay the seeds of the crisi of particularism as opposed to an internationalist universalism that was to come), the radically-democratic spirit, and the rational secularism that molded the pre-Bolshevik (far) left's worldview and principled interventions.

While one can't disagree really with the overall thrust of Bookchin's arguments, i'ts here in the details that his tendency for narrowness and dogmatism, his tendency to insist, ironically enough, on One True Path come forth. These are, perhaps, niggling points, but I feel they must be made.

For example, he disparages the "broken rifle" of contemporary pacifism as compared to a glorified radical "anti-militarism" of an earlier age, the ideal of an entire citizenry in arms against the state or the class enemy. In doing so, he seems to forget that the flame of the Left that he holds so dear was kept, at least in part, flickering by the radical conscientious objectors and absolutist pacifists of World Wars I and II, of Korea and Vietnam, with their refusal on all fronts to cooperate with the state or with the killing maching that is capital at its most feverish. He shrugs off the experience and influence of organizations such as Peacemakers, or its precursor, the Committee for Nonviolent Revolution; of periodicals such as Dwight Macdonald's marvelous and irritaing "Politics;" and he pays no attention whatsoever to the role that such organizations and others of their ilk, or of individuals such as AJ Muste and Barbara Deming, played in keeping the memory, practice, and, above all else, *principles* of a more humane and humanizing left alive in the face of overwhelming opposition by the status quo.

Indeed, it's arguable that, without the existence of such radical pacifists and their consistent and principled witness and actions, alongside that of the rump IWW, SLP, left communists, and tiny, fractured anarchists of the period, the light of Bookchin's "left that was" would have flickered out altogether.

Thre's another weakness, in my mind, one shared by most of the secular left, and still capable of raising the hackles of comrades of almost any flavor. That, of course, is the question of religious radicalism. To keep it brief, one need look no further than the Catholic Worker movement, and its stance for sixty-plus years, or the reality of base-community organizing in liberation theology to realize the role that radical religionists can and do play in keeping alive and advancing the vision that Bookchin describes. To ignore them is folly, to attack them is sectarian. They are, whether we like it or not, a vital and living part of our tradition. I, for one, like that very much, and anticipate that we'll be seeing much more, rather than less, organizing along left libertarian lines among persons of faith--Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and none-of-the-aboves alike--in the days and years to come.

* * *

Can such a libertarian, decentralist vision be melded with the "scientific" analysis of Marx and Engels? How can the innumerable lessons of Russia and the USSR, the Ukraine, Germany, Italy, Spain, China, Hungary, Cuba, etc., etc. be integrated into such a vision, creatively and without mindlessly reiterating the ideological certitudes--half-truths, at best--that so many of us have, quite literally, spouted for decades to no avail? Organizationally, what is called for in such a vision of a libertarian socialist movement, playing a prophetic and principled role in the class struggle and the battles of all the oppressed for a world of true justice and harmony--for the cooperative commonwealth of all humankind? In a pluralistic movement, what means are most appropriate in advancing such a vision? How might fluidity and continuing openness to new ideas be insured? Can we return to a vision of the individual and her or his fulfillment in community as key, leaving behind the fetish of five year plans, industrialization, and production for production's sake as the relic of an earlier period from which we have learned much, but have now passed by? Could such a distinct tendency operate across organizational boundaries, advancing a broad left-libertarian program, while loyally building, say, the IWW, NUP, IWA, Solidarity, the left of the Socialist Party, Class War, or Love and Rage? If such were the case, as unlikely as it sounds, how could work and focus and vision be coordinated?

Ideological hairsplitting is not the monopoly of any one tendency on the far left. Nor is sectarianism, and the inability to see the value of another's experiences and practice. But, it seems to me, the kinds of *principles* and *vision* that Bookchin elucidates are the kind that can draw many of the fragments of the far left together again, however loosely, in a kind of phoenix rising of the "left that was."

In short, it is possible for the construction of a liberatory vision of the left freed from shackles of all kinds, and wedded to the drive to move forward to a confrontation with history, organizally rooted in a culture of struggle and an understanding of the real world, and armed with a vision of the immense potentials inherent in a pluralistic movement dedicated to the sacred nature of human personality?

Bookchin writes that "present society is totally irrational and must be replaced by one that is guided by reason, and ecological ethics, and a genuine concern for human welfare." He adds, though, that "Any attempt to adapt the rational 'should' to the irrational 'is' vacates that space on the political spectrum that should be occupied by a Left premised on reason, freedom, and ecological humanism."

There's not halfway. The prophets are bellowing from their mountaintops, and the world cries out as never before for liberty and justice. What, then, are we waiting for?