Anarchy after Leftism
by Bob Black
Columbia Alternative Library Press: Columbia, USA, 1997
This is the first book published by Columbia Alternative Library (C.A.L.) Press, a "publishing collective dedicated to the utter destruction of the dominant society". It's appearance also signals a continuation in the round of arguments between Murray Bookchin and the loose circle of people grouped around 'Fifth Estate' and 'Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed'  - both US published journals of an anti-authoritarian stance critical of the totality of civilisation.
Over the last few years a number of people from the anti-authoritarian/anarchist scene  in the USA have come under increasingly harsh criticism from Murray Bookchin and his cabal of Social Ecologist academics. This criticism has culminated, so far, in the publication of Bookchin's latest book 'Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm'  which takes swipes at a number of people and ideas from the aforementioned milieu - and it is in reply to Bookchin's tract that Bob Black has written this book.
Bob Black's book is an anthology of writings, all of which stand as articles on their own, and they all have the underlying theme not only of criticism of Bookchin's theory and writings, but leftist anarchism in general. The book is broken into 11 chapters that each cover different ground; ranging from an open attack on some of the issues raised in 'Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism' to addressing questions surrounding issues such as organisation, individualism and primitivism.
Black does not write particularly well if judged solely on the grounds of grammar, yet one area where he is at his strongest is in vociferous humourous criticism. In one chapter he parodies Bookchin's well known essay 'Listen Marxist!' with a two page chapter entitled 'Shut up, Marxist!' where he dismisses Bookchin's latest warblings as vulgar Marxism in disguise (and not a very good one at that). The main thrust of Black's criticism seems to be twofold; firstly he draws out the contradictions between what Bookchin has said in the past, and that which he now preaches; and secondly, and most importantly, he attacks the very ideas proposed by Bookchin now. It is possible to try and dismiss some of the criticisms from the first category on the grounds of relevance. This is especially notable when he uses quotes from writings made by Bookchin as far back as 1963 (under the pseudonym Lewis Herber) to illustrate his point. Pointing out these discrepancies is a particularly weak form of criticism (who amongst us does not look back at some of our previously held ideas and cringe?). Having said that, I am sure Black knows this and points them out to get a personal kick (probably not a very healthy one!) from drawing attention to the contradictions in Bookchin's past and present writings.
Criticism from some quarters may be levelled at Black for the distance he is trying to put between the ideas he and others espouse, and the political left wing. The usage of the designations 'left' and 'right' are commonplace in today's political arena, whether parliamentary or not, but ultimately are empty - slogan words that have no real meaning. The global politics of today are far too complicated to be reduced to mere throw away outdated terminology. Breaking from, the term 'leftism' means more than turning our backs on the ideologies that it encompasses. It means a qualified change on every level - from organisation to practical methods of resistance - and anything else merely falls into the cesspool of change for change's sake; 'bandwagonism' at it's worst.
As mentioned earlier Black uses Bookchin as a springboard to a wider critique of leftism; yet it is not just the terminology of words like 'leftism' that Black is trying to distance himself from - rather it is from the incoherent and out-dated collection of ideologies that lie behind them. These show the left "as all it really is, a variant of hegemonic ideology - a loyal opposition - which was formerly effective in recuperating revolutionary tendencies."  In rejecting this epithet of 'leftism' it does not mean we should place the critique of it at the heart of our practice and theory, nor does it mean we have rejected all the history of resistance that the left has been involved with. It is more a rejection of all the problems associated with the left and is thus a re-appropriation of the true revolutionary nature that has been cloaked in party lines, dogma and paper selling for too long.
All the bickering, abuse and criticism that has flown between the two groups of protagonists in this ongoing dispute may seem irrelevant and a purely academic self-indulgence to many; provoking an understandable 'a pox on both your houses' type reaction. Yet if this happens people will have missed the most important thread of the arguments and discussions put forward here by Black. One of the most pertinent observations he makes is that; "[t]he anarchists are at a turning point. For the first time in history, they are the only revolutionary current." (AAL: 140.) This point is easily extrapolated to the situation here in the UK where we, with the moribund state of the left and the fairly recent growth of ecological direct action, are placed firmly in the category of a significant threat to the current system. To have any hope of making good on this potential we must realise we are not an isolated historical phenomenon, but rather a recent manifestation of a current of resistance that emerged as a reaction to all we desire to transcend. In order to increase our effectiveness we must actively engage in this process of resistance. This includes critically looking at and assessing past and present political theory and practices; which is where the validity of this book becomes apparent in relation to our own struggles.
To conclude then; this book spends a fair proportion of it's time analysing and criticising the theories and writings of Murray Bookchin, but this is far less important than the connected ideas articulated, and attempts made, however flawed , to show a possible radical direction for all those who desire the blossoming of the free spirit, and for that reason alone it is worth reading. I shall finish this review with the same paragraph and sentiments that Bob Black expresses when he concludes his book with the words; "There is life after the left. And there is anarchy after anarchism. Post-leftist anarchists are striking off in many directions. Some may find the way - better yet, the ways - to a free future."(AAL:150)
- Taken from 'A note about C.A.L. Press' in the preface of the book.
- For reviews of these publications see 'Recommended Reading' in this issue of DoD.
- Those people in Bookchin's firing line include Hakim Bey, Jason McQuinn, John Zerzan and David Watson, who has recently published an appraisal and critique of Bookchin's work entitled 'Beyond Bookchin. Preface for a Future Social Ecology' (Black and Red/Autonomedia: Detroit, USA 1997.)
- Published by AK Press: Edinburgh 1995.
- Page 142 - 'Anarchy after Leftism' by Bob Black. (C.A.L. Press: Columbia, USA. 1997) All quotes taken from the book used in this review will be simply identified by the abbreviation 'AAL' followed by the page number in brackets, thus: (AAL: 45) denotes 'Anarchy after Leftism: page 45.'
- And, as with all texts, flaws abound, one of which prompted the publication of a leaflet concerning the usage of a phrase in Black's book where he likens a criticism of Marx made by Bakunin, using Marx's ethnicity as a term of abuse, to his own of Bookchin. Irrelevant twaddle by nit-picking politicos with nothing better to write about, important criticism of a raging anti-Semite, or something in between? I'm unsure; read the book and leaflet and make your own mind up. Copies of the leaflet are available from: Unpopular Books, Box 15, 138 Kingsland High Street, London, E8 2NS, UK.