Monday 11 May 2020

Review - The Future of the Left (is Green) by Murray Bookchin

The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct ...

The Future of the Left is an essay written by Murray Bookchin in 2002, but first published in 2015, in Bookchin’s collection of essays The Next Revolution. The book is edited by Debbie Bookchin and Blair Taylor and runs through Bookchin’s fairly unique take on the politics of the Left.

The Future of the Left is almost sixty pages long, where Bookchin looks into the possibilities of Marxist socialism, but laments its deficiencies, more so that of contemporary Marxists and the twentieth century regimes inspired by Marx, but the old boy himself also gets some criticism from Bookchin. In particular, he labels the socialist experiments as centralised, bureaucratic and authoritarian, which is undeniably true.

After a promising beginning to the twentieth century, where socialism seemed as though it might replace capitalism as the dominant world order, with especially the Russian revolution offering an alternative pole of attraction, Bookchin says:

…what has occurred since the mid-point of the twentieth century is a very different development: a period of cultural and theoretical decadence so far as revolutionary ideas and movements are concerned; a period of decomposition, in fact, that has swept up nearly all the philosophical, cultural, ethical, and social standards that the Enlightenment had produced…as social theory has retreated from the lusty debating forums of 1930s socialism to the cloistered seminar rooms of contemporary universities.

Now that the twentieth century has come to a close, we are justified in asking, why has humanity’s emancipation failed to achieve fruition? Why, in particular, has the proletariat failed to make its predicted revolution?

Bookchin offers some answers to these questions, accusing Marxists of failing to understand the changing nature of the working class, as industrial production dwindled with workers increasingly moving into ‘white collar’ salaried jobs and professions. The aspiration to emulate successful rich people, rather than despise them, in this changing cultural landscape, being largely dismissed as ‘false consciousness’ by Marxist thinkers. Bookchin points out that 40% of the US public owned stock on financial markets at the turn of the millennium. He says Marxism fetishizes a kind of mysticism in the working class.

In western countries in the second half of the twentieth century, driven by an almost post scarcity, capitalism has managed to make changes in cultural norms, home ownership, status automobiles, and foreign travel have become fashionable for the masses, boosting consumerism with advertising for the next must have product. These are my words, but it is kind of summed up in the idea of ‘bucket lists’. Although capitalism falls into crisis from time to time, it always bounces back, stronger it seems than ever.

To those who have read some of Bookchin’s work before, like me, it comes as no surprise that he criticises Marxism and those acting in Marx’s name, but he then more surprisingly opens fire on anarchism and syndicalism. Asking if anarchism offers a better alternative to Marxism, he says:

After forty years of trying to work with this ideology, my own very considered opinion is that such a hope which I entertained as early as the 1950s, is unrealisable…In reality, anarchism has no coherent body of theory other than its commitment to an ahistorical conception of ‘personnel autonomy’.

He accuses anarchism, like Marxism, of importing alien concepts, like syndicalism and ecology, but seems to be mostly frustrated by anarchism's latent lack of organisation and distrust of ‘leaders’. He says anarchist theory is that it, anarchism, has always existed, but like the soil under the snow, the snow just needs to thaw for it come into its own. But with only a kind of primitivism to offer as an alternative society, it is doomed to failure.

With anarcho-syndicalism, citing the revolution in Catalonia in 1936, he says the unions allowed anarchist thinking to influence a disastrous reluctance to lead with a programme, after the initial success of the revolution.

So, what does Bookchin think is the future of the Left? Well, after all the criticism of Marxism and anarchism, and the accusation of importing alien concepts, he rather contradicts himself by recommending taking the best bits of both traditions and melding them into what he calls libertarian communism. This would be administered by municipalities under democratic community communalist control, with lower level assemblies having a right to recall those above them.

But he also thinks that to get to this place, the Left needs to appeal to the working and middle classes, and the best way he thinks to do this is through environmental concerns, which do affect the lower classes more, but also affect everyone. Air quality, polluted rivers and seas, and dangerous climate change, will impact on everyone, to some extent.

...the Left must focus on issues that are interclass in nature, addressing the middle as well as the working class. By the very logic of its grow-or-die imperative, capitalism may well be producing an ecological crisis that gravely imperil the integrity of life on this planet…

…Yet for capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit suicide. By definition, capitalism is a competitive economy that cannot cease to expand.

Bookchin calls for a preparedness, on the part of the Left to develop a programme for a post revolutionary society in advance, around issues of a clean environment, more localised production and real democracy. Revolutions can happen quickly sometimes, and with all the uncertainty of these times, who can say what will happen? But the Left needs a coherent programme in place for when any opportunities can be forced, or arrive anyway.

Bookchin rounds off his essay thus:

In assessing the revolutionary tradition, a reasoned Left has to shake off dead traditions that, as Marx warned, weigh on the heads of the living, and commit itself to create a rational society and a rounded civilisation.    


  1. Bookchins suggestion of ‘libertarian communism’ seems to chime with the uk Solidarity’s thinking (‘libertarian socialist’) and his suggestion of accountability/recallability of elected delegates from municipalities (and workplaces?) is a syndicalist demand and is practised in Cuba.

  2. " In assessing the revolutionary tradition, a reasoned Left has to shake off dead traditions that, as Marx warned, weigh on the heads of the living, and commit itself to create a rational society and a rounded civilisation".

    A " rational society " takes us back to Descartes, the father of " rationalism" who posited that eternal truths can only be discovered and tested through reason. Famous for his " I thinks, therefore I am".

    " A rounded civilisation "? This takes us back to Georg Whilhelm Freirich Hegel's " idealism " whereby the finite world is only a reflection of the mind which alone is truly real.

    The problem with the author's viewpoint - quite apart from taking us back to pre-marxism and therefore leading us politically to a cul-de -sac - is that he throws the baby ( e.g. dialectical materialism ) with the bath water ( an understanding of history from a class based analysis ).