Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unhelpful Dichotomy

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ABSTRACT

A leading theorist of the anarchist and revolutionary personalist dimensions of the counterculture of the 1960s, some twenty-five years later Murray Bookchin adopted a much more strident and combative stance towards countercultural, lifestyle-oriented anarchism in his 1995 polemic, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. This essay examines the rationale for Bookchin's shift from reasoned dialogue with participants in the Euro-American counterculture to polemical confrontation. In contrast to those who have charged Bookchin with theoretical inconsistency driven by cynical political opportunism, it argues that while his political thought evolved over time in response to changing historical circumstances, the later position is theoretically consistent with the earlier. However, it also maintains that Bookchin's straw man account of lifestyle anarchism in the 1990s is misguided and politically unhelpful insofar as it obscures what the earlier work helped so well to clarify: namely, the integral connections between the personal and the political aspects of libertarian revolutionary social change. It thus obscures one of the most creative and hopeful aspects of the anarchist currents in the newest social movements that emerged from the rebellions of 1968.

Keywords Bookchin, lifestyle anarchism, countercultures, revolution

INTRODUCTION

The philosophy and practice of revolutionary personalism emerged from the most radical, politicised edge of the counterculture of the 1960s, as well as from anarchist-inclined strains of pacifism, anti-racism, radical feminism and ecologism. Its defining characteristic is the recognition that the liberation of everyday life is an essential component of anti-authoritarian revolutionary change. The influential anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin articulated this point with memorable clarity in the immediate aftermath of the events of May-June 1968 in France, 'It is plain that the goal of revolutionary today must be the liberation of daüy life. Any revolution that fads to achieve this goal is counter-revolution. Above all, it is we who have to be liberated, our daüy lives, with all their moments, hours and days, and not universals like "History" and "Society"' (Bookchin, 2004 [1971], p. 10).

Some twenty-five years later, however, Bookchin characterised the personalist legacy of the Euro-American counterculture in much less sympathetic terms. In a brief but hugely controversial book published in 1995, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm, he lambasted contemporary anarchists for abandoning their social revolutionary and Utopian aspirations in favour of an introspective personalism, escapist aestheticism, and chic boutique lifestyle subculture that posed no serious threat to the existing powers. In this essay I examine the rationale for this polemical criticism. Is it simply a case of what at least one critic (Black, 1997, ch. 1) has somewhat unkindly termed 'grumpy old man' syndrome, or are there deeper issues at stake that merit closer consideration?

The plan for the paper is as follows. First, I will trace the history of the anarchist counterculture in the U.S. context in which Bookchin's thinking developed, focusing particularly on the 1960s and its anarchist revolutionary personalist legacies. Second, I will elucidate Bookchin's sympathetic theorisation of the revolutionary personalism of the 1960s in influential works published shordy after the events of 1968. Third, I will sketch his apparendy contrasting critique of lifestyle anarchism in his 1995 polemic. Finally, I conclude wirh an assessment of the significance and merits of Bookchin's arguments based on my interpretation of the development of anarchist practice and theory since the 1960s.

My argument is that while Bookchin's differing accounts of lifestyle-oriented cultural politics in the immediate aftermath of 1968 and in the mid-1990s are indeed theoretically consistent, the later work is misguided and politically unhelpful insofar as its polemical intent and either/or theoretical premises obscure what the earlier work helped so well to clarify: namely, the integral connections between the personal and the political aspects of libertarian revolutionary social change. …