Beyond Bookchinism:
A Left Green Response

James J. Hughes 1989 " Beyond Bookchinism" Socialist Review, 89(3): 103-110.

SINCE THE AUGUST, 1987, national Green conference in Amherst, when Murray Bookchin first opened fire with the essay, "Social Ecology vs. Deep Ecology" (SR 88/3), the organized US "Green" movement has been struggling to respond to, ignore, or take sides in this debate. Bookchin's charges against deep ecology center on its implicit commitment to taking the sides with "Nature" against humanity; its general ignorance of social justice perspectives; its reactionary tendencies, particularly on population control; and its overly spiritual and cultural - as opposed to political - orientation. Bookchin and his followers, on the other hand, profess "social ecology," a variant of anarchism, and have organized themselves as a "Left Green Network" within the larger U.S. Green movement.

The acrimony of the debate, therefore, not only reflects the seriousness of the political and philosophical issues Bookchin has raised, but also a struggle for political control within this new movement. Bookchin has admirably pointed out both the utopian and reactionary dangers of one particular line of ideological breeding among the Greens-deep ecology-and his own ideological hybrid has many admirable characteristics. But he fails to fully understand and articulate the implications of his own position, falling back on an anarchist interpretation of natural law. A little ideological husbandry with the democratic left and a clearer focus on the centrality of consciousness in his ethical system would probably produce a much stronger steed.

The left should be deeply grateful to Bookchin for taking on the burden of critiquing the murky depths of Green political philosophy, and I believe the issues he has raised cut to the core of modern political dilemmas. While many of the anti-intellectual New Agers in Green politics have dismissed the social ecology/deep ecology debate as simply an example of the left's self-defeating sectarianism and hair-splitting, it was precisely this sort of anti-intellectualism that led the sixties' student movement to adopt an "all-friends-on-the-left" policy-until it collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Political engagement with, and repudiation of, the reactionary and misanthropic tendencies in ecological politics is central to the articulation of the next left.

The "biocentric" deep ecologists tend to view humanity as a cancerous growth, which should be convinced to perform auto-genocide for the protection of "the natural order." Bookchin, on the other hand, views human society and consciousness as products of the same evolutionary processes that govern the ecosystem. Rather than a cancerous growth, Bookchin sees humanity as the forebrain of the ecosystem. Bookchin wants to redefine the struggle for an ecological order in and make the perfection of human potential the central project. Rather than self-excision, Bookchin believes we need to learn more about our global body, and start taking better care of ourselves. While deep ecologists' biocentrism tends to undervalue or ignore human social struggles, Bookchin points to the centrality of changing the human social order in order to protect the environment.

Paranoid Dualism and Polemic Overkill

BOOKCHIN'S PROPHYLACTIC BASHING of latent "eco-fascism" has probably contributed an important maturity to the movement: not everything said nicely in the spirit of love of the earth has to be tolerated as "Green." On the other hand, the great majority of Greens are far from having a consistent politics of any stripe, and the vitriolic nature of Bookchin's polemic has unnecessarily driven generally progressive Greens into a defense of deep ecology. His sectarian style is pointed to as "example A" by socially liberal New Agers who think that the entire left political tradition should be thrown out as "old paradigm," and that words like "capitalism," "socialism," or "left" are no longer useful. He has driven very different wings of the Green movement, which were formerly suspicious of one another, into a tacit alliance against him, and by extension against the ideological left.

While Bookchin’s analysis is far from the necessary serious social scientific and political analysis of these different strains, it is useful in pointing out some important philosophic and political errors. Elite and viscerally antileft, New Agers have been central to the organizing of the us Greens, but mainly on the cocktail and organic canape circuit. The professors and philosophers of deep ecology have not been formally tied to any group, and spend most of their time with their typewriters. And despite their media-induced popular image, the direct action group Earth First! is not formally involved in the Green movement. In fact, they eschew organized politics in general, and they spend most of their time in national parks expressing their solidarity with bears. These groups share little but a common interest in fending off the charge of eco-fascism.


THE MOST UNFORTUNATE of Bookchin’s attacks on deep ecology is directed against the religious progressive community, which he again appears to sweepingly condemn as neo-fascist. This attack is politically wrong-headed, since the bulk of religious progressives would agree with his critiques of deep ecology, and denies the important contributions that religious progressives could have in shaping the politics of the next left. The challenge eco-politics poses to the left is more profound than most "leftists" have imagined; it is not only a crisis of strategy and policy, but also a fundamental crisis of ethics and meaning in this postmodern age. The next left needs not only to achieve the "good," but to determine what the "good" is. In my opinion, the religious progressives have more to say on this than any other group on the left.

As Jeffrey Escoffier suggests in his essay, "Socialism as Ethics" (SR 85), the modem left has been stranded by the collapse of determinist views of social progress. Our politics must be grounded in ethical commitments, yet we are faced with the collapse of ethical certainty in our postmodern culture. Since the Enlightenment repudiated "natural law" and began to look for a rational grounding for ethics, there has grown a gap between the is and the ought in Western thought.  Both deep ecology and social ecology can be seen as desperate efforts to build a dam against the further erosion of meaning and purpose by Enlightenment rationality, to bridge a scientific is to a political ought. But these two philosophical schools could learn a lot by the battles that have been fought by the theologians.

Both Bookchin and the deep ecologists posit a kind of natural law that equates "the good" with "the ecological," the ought with the is. Deep ecologists are theologians who see humanity as having committed such a profound original sin that we can only be redeemed by self-extinction. Bookchin attempts to bridge the gap between is and ought by recognizing that, since our naturally evolved human minds are the creators of values and ethics (we are the only beings capable of sin, faith and redemption), then values and ethics should be based on the evolution of our minds - on a teleology of human redemption. In this sense, Bookchin is unabashedly anthropocentric; trees don't bear rights and values, human minds do.

Social Ecology as Metaphor

SINCE CONSCIOUSNESS plays such a central role in Bookchin's ethics, this appears to be in contradiction to his assertion that humans oppress nature. A key (apparently psychodynamic) point in Bookchin's politics seems to be that we humans began "oppressing" nature because we were oppressing each other. But the "oppression" of nature is fundamentally different from the oppression of sentient beings. It is, in fact, meaningless, since "oppression" only has meaning in reference to sentient beings with conscious intents. It's not wrong to put radioactive waste in the ground because we "oppress" the dirt, but because we and other sentient life forms are threatened by those toxins, and because we, humans, aesthetically value a non-irradiated environment. We don't "oppress" nature, but rather impact on it in a way that causes us, and other sentient beings, harm or displeasure. Bookchin seems confused on this basic point.

Walter Truett Anderson's adamantly "managerial" Green line, articulated in To Govern Evolution is an example of an ecological politics that is more compatible with the anthropocentrism of democratic left thought than Bookchin's metaphorical eco-anarchism. Anderson points out that humans have been impacting on the ecosystem for tens of thousands of years, and that our challenge is not to withdraw from nature altogether (as deep ecologists suggest), or to get into organo-anarchic harmony with it (as Bookchin suggests), but to start managing it responsibly.

The basic thrust of Bookchin's "social ecology" is the assertion that ecological destruction is a direct result of "social hierarchy." Thus, an anarchic society is the only answer to ecological destruction. While it is probably true that social hierarchies make it more difficult to reorient ourselves toward ecological protection, this seems to be another major weakness of Bookchin's analysis. It seems quite possible that an egalitarian society could be ecologically destructive, and vice-versa. In fact, Bookchin contradicts himself when he points out that feudalism was not ecologically destructive, and acknowledges the possibility that corporate capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist societies could institute ecological policies. If social hierarchy and eco-cide are relatively autonomous, the left can only strive to understand how they interact, reinforce, and undercut one another, and build a set of values and movements to change them both. What Bookchin tends toward is the reduction of the struggle against one to the struggle against the other.

Natural Hierarchy and Left Ecology

FINALLY BOOKCHIN SEEMS to lead himself back into one of the same errors that he so eloquently critiques in deep ecology: the separation of the social order from "the natural." On the one hand, Bookchin insists that, since humans are naturally evolved, anything we do is natural. On the other hand, he insists that nature abhors hierarchy, and that once we get back in touch with our continuity with the natural order we will eschew hierarchy, and vice versa This is again the problem of the leap from IS to OUGHT. Hierarchies exist in the ecosystem, including animal class and gender systems, and our hierarchies are just as "naturally" evolved as theirs. The reason for us to oppose hierarchy has to do with an existential human ethical decision, not with its "unnaturalness."

Bookchin's equation of nonhierarchical organization with ecology leads us astray not only philosophically, but also politically; it leads us into a utopian rejection of engagement with the actual existing (albeit hierarchical) political structures, such as the Democratic Party and Congress. A complex social order, like a complex organism, requires some degree of specialization, centralization and hierarchy. But the range of possibilities within the human social niche is very broad and we need to ethically decide which of these possible adaptations will ensure the survival of the species and the ecosystem, while satisfying our ethical goals.

Some historical periods allow only slow and cumulative change, while other "transformative crisis" periods, when the social equilibrium is "punctuated," allow rapid and revolutionary change. Our challenge is discerning when the window of opportunity is open for radical change, and when we must wage a more modest "war of position." The project of the left is to recognize the ever-changing limits of this window, and to position ourselves within it without either extinguishing ourselves in utopian and apocalyptic projects, or blending into the dominant gene-pool of possibilities.

Consciousness-centered Ethics

THE LEFT HAS HAD LITTLE to say in the debate over what conditions determine who (or what) is granted "rights" by human beings. This is the question surrounding issues like abortion, life-maintenance for the brain-dead, animal rights, and "biocentric" ethics. As Bookchin points out, if "life" is all that is required for an organism not to be interfered with by conscious humans, then there is no reason for biocentrists not to ban antibiotics for endangering species of microbes.

If, on the other hand, one acknowledges any ethical difference between a fetus and a woman, a microbe and a human, or a fish and a whale, then one is stepping away from biocentricism towards a consciousness-centered ethics. Consciousness-centered ethics is not strictly anthropocentric, since it can recognize that whales and simians should be granted "human" rights, and that animals with less sophisticated nervous systems should be treated "humanely." But in the face of the radical feminist, deconstructionist and deep ecological assault on Euro-logo-phallo-anthropo-centrism, we might as well bite the bullet and say, with Bookchin, that all ethics are, and must be, anthropocentric. Only a clear commitment to the project of developing the potentials of (principally human) consciousness can bring coherence to the politics of the next left.